A letter to the editor of a periodical can easily get one’s message to a wide audience. Nonetheless, many publications have low rates of publication of such letters, e.g., 1.5% for The New York Times. Since my success rate has been considerably higher, I offer the following advice to those who wish to write letters to the editor.
1. Figure out what point you want to make, and focus on it. Having to say something is not the same thing as having something to say, and a focused letter has a higher likelihood of publication than a stream-of-consciousness rant.
2. Do your homework. Even if you do not know the subject well, one of your readers likely will, and speculation about the subject may well set you up for public humiliation. More than once, I have had letters published in response to letters, in which I corrected the previous letter writers’ understanding of the very things that they had sought to defend. For the same reason, once you have the facts, resist the temptation to cherry-pick the facts to misrepresent the subject; a half truth is a whole lie. If you determine that a fair reading of the facts does not support your point, go back to step 1.
3. Make your point, and make it plainly. The more work you require your readers to do to figure out what you are saying, the less likely that your letter will have an impact or will even be published.
4. Write your letter in an appropriate tone. Write as though you were writing a business letter, not a quick e-mail note to a friend. In particular, leave out the content-free rhetorical flourishes that so impress you; they will likely impress no one else. Also, avoid insulting others — your opponents, the author of the article to which you are responding, and, most importantly, your potential readers.
5. Don’t just tell your readers why you believe something; show them why they should agree with you. Appealing to your own emotions, while popular among the politically correct crowd, is an excellent way to get everyone else to ignore you. Instead, use examples and solid, dispassionate reasoning to make your point. In short, show your work.
6. Proofread, and boil down your prose. Check your letter for facts and logic, not just for spelling and grammar. Also, since periodicals typically have limited space for letters to the editor, make every word count, and eliminate those that do not. From my conversations with the people who select letters to the editor, I have learned that they almost never reject letters for being too short.
7. Do not fear constructive criticism. Someone from the periodical may suggest changes to your letter. If that person thought that your letter completely lacked merit, she would not waste her time making those suggestions.
While I cannot guarantee success, I believe from my experience that by following the above points, you will increase the likelihood that your letters are published and read.