Why write letters?
Because the pen really is mightier than the sword.
Most newspapers have letters pages; sometimes radio programmes invite listeners to write in too. Writing letters to a newspaper or radio programme is effective because:
- The publication or broadcast reaches a large audience
- The media is often monitored by politicians and companies we're trying to influence
- Letters can raise important information not addressed in a news items
- Letters can show widespread support-for, or opposition-to, an issue. Often there are strong feelings held by the public that are not expressed adequately in news stories. Letters to editors give you the opportunity to express the public voice.
Good letter writing
- Keep it short and on one subject. Many newspapers have strict limits on the length of letters (200 words is often a maximum) and have limited space to publish them. Keeping your letter brief will help ensure that your important points are not cut out by the newspaper.
- Make it legible. Your letter doesn't have to be fancy, but you should typr it if your handwriting is difficult to read.
- Make references to the newspaper. While some papers print general commentary, many will only print letters that refer to a specific article. If you're doing that, then include a reference to the article (article title, page and date) in your opening sentence.
- Include all your contact details. Include name, daytime telephone number and address. The letter editors may want to verify the identity of the letter writer by calling them, especially for a letter sent by email.
- Meet the deadlines. The letters page will often include instructions and the deadline for receipt of letters. In general, if a weekly newspaper were published on a Friday then it would go to press on Wednesday and Tuesday lunchtime is the deadline for your letter to be received by the Letters Editor. Having said that, if you letter arrived on Monday morning so much the better.
Some tips on style
- Increase your credibility by mentioning anything that makes you especially qualified to write on a topic. For instance, "As a local resident, a stones throw from the proposed wind farm," or, "as a mother," or, "as an engineer," or, "as someone who's experienced flooding and is concerned about climate change," etc.
- Try to tell readers something they're not likely to know - such as how wind farms are built - and encourage them to take action (such as writing to the planning office).
- Keep personal grudges and name-calling out of letters; they'll hurt your credibility.
- Speak affirmatively. Don't give lip service to myths.
Some examples (based on supporting wind farms)
Example: "Only a rabid, heartless oil head would sacrifice our children's future and inflict further cataclysmic pain and suffering upon the poor and innocent of the third world."
Better: "People concerned about our children and their future know that we need to stop global warming. That means replacing power from fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas with clean renewable energy. The proposed wind farm is a good start."
Note: Avoid self-righteous language and exaggeration. Readers may dismiss arguments if they feel preached to or if the author sounds hysterical.
Example: "Burning fossil fuels is bad for climate change."
Better: "We know burning coal, oil and the like is leading to long term changes in our weather that could be costly and harmful."
Note: Don't assume your audience knows the issues.
Example: "Don't use fossil fuels."
Better: "Let's power our homes using clean energy from renewable sources."
Note: Use positive suggestions rather than negative commands.
Example: "Noise isn't a problem from wind turbines."
Better: "I've visited a wind farm and seeing the turbine blades sweeping through the air with only a whisper was quite a surprise. Standing near the foot of the wind turbine my sister and I could quite comfortably hold a conversation."
Note: Personalize your writing with anecdotes and visual images.
Example: "The turbines are 60MW total output."
Better: "The wind farm will provide electricity for about 40,000 homes."
Note: Avoid jargon. If the reader is unlikely to understand technical terms then don't use any.
Example: "I'm between jobs at the moment."
Better: "I'm an electrician by training but unemployed."
Note: Avoid euphemisms.
Example: "There is no excuse for your anti-wind article."
Better: "There is no excuse for the anti-wind policies of the Council."
Note: Criticize the policy, not the newspaper.
This letter is included as an example of good practice in letter writing. It's a 'rebuttal' to the concern that wind power is intermittent, unlike coal or gas i.e. it's only produced when the wind blows. Notice it's length and that it covers one issue at length and briefly touches on another; the dangerous pollution from nuclear power. The letter is also humorous, but not comical, which helps to win the heart of the reader, as well as the Letters' Editor.
Simon Doughty asks (Comment, 14 July) how he can make a cup of coffee on windless days. Several options are open to him.
Today, he could use electricity from a hydro-electric scheme, using water which is still there because it was not needed on previous windy days.
In future, he could use electricity from a wave scheme, which has the useful feature that it is generated by wind anywhere in the Pacific and can be available when local winds are not.
Or he could save energy by using energy efficient light globes and switching off his towel rail, so we don't need to generate as much electricity.
After his coffee, he can draft a letter to his descendants, explaining why they are still paying part of the billions of dollars of damage that climate change will cause.