Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Writing that Letter to the Editor...

HOPE supporters are a continual source of inspiration to me. Your donations; your work contacting MPs and all the ‘keep up the good work’ comments of appreciation all make a huge impact.

One supporter, Clara, recently gave me great inspiration and encouragement by way of a series of letters to the editor of the Canberra Times on the issue of euthanasia. I’ve repeated some of them throughout this article. Thanks so much Clara!

Maybe like me, you’re an avid reader of the ‘Letters’ page in your favourite newspaper. If you are, you’ve probably noticed that the some writers get their letters published quite regularly. How do they do it? But the first question, really, is: why do they bother?

The simple answer is – to communicate a message. Former Tasmanian Senator, Guy Barnett, in his book: Make a Difference – a practical guide to lobbying, says that the most commonly read pages in the newspaper are the front, the back, page three and letters to the editor. Letters provide the reader with another view; sometimes with humour, letters either confirm the readers’ views or challenge them to think a little more.

Sometimes letters will raise an issue –something that has the writer infuriated or inspired that he or she wants to share, perhaps in the hope that others are interested too. More often, however, letters will be replies to either earlier letters or to an article on the pages of the same newspaper days earlier.

Who gets published and why? Regular contributors to the letters pages may find that the simple act of submitting a letter is almost a guarantee of publishing. Sometimes published because they have something to say (and know how to say it); sometimes because they have a reputation for quality comment and sometimes simply because the editor of the letters pages has come to welcome their regular contributions.

So, in addition to the quality of the letter and the subject matter, the other consideration is whether or not the editor of the letters page is convinced that your letter should be published. In addition to the quality question, there’s always the question of relevance. Is the issue you are commenting on important; is there a need for balancing of views and will this be an issue that will generate interest?


What if your letter is not published? This could be for a number of reasons. It could simply be that you’ve left sending the letter until too late – most editing for tomorrow’s newspaper will start mid to late afternoon the previous day. It could also be that you were one of many who responded to the article in question and that the editor published only a selected, representative few. If that’s the case, then your letter contributed to the outcome even though you did not get your name in print!

Having said all that, there are some tips for success. While these won’t guarantee that you’ll get published, they will help you get considered.

When referring to a previous correspondent or an article in the same paper, make sure you give an adequate, early reference:

“Your article by Joe Bloggs (newspaper name 13 April) leaves out some critical considerations…”
“John Smith’s letter (13 April) provides clear evidence that…”
“If only it were really that simple! Joe Bloggs made some important points (Letter 13 April) but…”

These kinds of introductions set the scene immediately. Even if the reader of your letter hadn’t read the earlier article or letter you will, nonetheless, have flagged that you are responding as well as introducing the topic.

Keep the whole letter to about 200-300 words. On rare occasions longer letters will be published, but when the editor has little space to work with, why give him or her an excuse to leave your contribution out?

Make one or two points only – and make them the best points. Sometimes citing references can help, but remember: data does not make an argument; data only supports an argument. Think of it this way: If I say to you: “I have a hammer.” You might assume that I want to hit a nail – but I might well want to do something else with it. If I said, “The roof needs fixing and I have the tool to do it,” then you’re left in no doubt about the hammer!

On the use of data; you don’t need to know everything there is to know on your subject. But if you are mentioning a statistic, take the time to check the fact at a reputable source. There’s nothing worse than making a good point only to have the argument shot through by not getting the detail right. It’s just not good enough to recall hearing that ‘in xyz country 25% of …’. If you don’t have the data, don’t suggest that you have. If you’re making your point well, maybe you can rely on common sense – you don’t always need chapter and verse.

Close with a short, pithy sentence that encapsulates your argument. Some examples:

“Emotions are a poor master; in reality, there’s much more to this than meets the eye.”
“We need to think a bit more on this and make sure everyone gets a fair go.”
“We need to think of our children’s future and the kind of world we leave them.”

It probably goes without saying, but steer clear of snide or superior comments. No-one likes a smarty-pants!

Most newspapers will take letters via email these days. Make sure that you provide your name and address details and a phone number (sometimes used for verification) in the body of the email. Don’t send attachments, they won’t get opened.

Getting a series of letters published on the same issue over a number of weeks is rare in my experience. Clara’s efforts are probably the exception rather than the rule. The issue was running strong – which I guess encouraged the editor. Also, as you will see from Clara’s letters, she was often responding to people who had criticised her comments (a sure sign that she was onto something!)

By the way, I know that a number of other supporters get letters published – and quite frequently too! Please keep up the good work and please send me copies when you make it into print.

I hope that you will also take inspiration from Clara’s efforts. Next time someone gets published on euthanasia or assisted suicide, be it article or letter; take a few moments to have your say too!

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