Writing to newspapers

Page - November 30, 2006
Letters to the editor are among the most widely read features in any newspaper or magazine. A well written letter to the editor can reach a large audience, influence public opinion, move people to take action and influence decision-makers directly or indirectly.

The larger the newspaper or magazine, the more competition there is for letters-to-the-editor space. The style and tone tips below will help your letter stand out on the editor's desk. If you are still unsure how to get started then check out the seven simple steps further down the page.

Style and tone

Keep it short and sweet. Many newspapers have strict limits on the length of letters (200-300 words is often a maximum) so keep your letter focused and brief.

Keep your cool. Keep the ranting to a minimum as it'll hurt your credibility.

  • Don’t: "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."

  • Do: "People concerned about our children and their future know that we need to address climate change. That means replacing power from fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas with clean renewable energy."

Avoid jargon. If the reader is unlikely to understand technical terms then don't use any.

  • Don’t: "The turbines are 60MW total output."

  • Do: "The wind farm will provide electricity for about 40,000 homes."

Criticize the policy or action, not the newspaper.

  • Don’t: "There is no excuse for your pro-oil article."

  • Do: "There is no excuse for the pro-oil policies of the Government."

Try to use tangible suggestions rather than overall commands.

  • Don’t: "Don't use fossil fuels."

  • Do: "Let's power our homes using clean energy from renewable sources."

7 Simple Steps:

1. Read other letters to the editor from the paper and check the submission guidelines.

To get a better idea of how to phrase your letters and to see what appeals to the editors of that particular paper take a look at some previous letters .

Make sure you check the submission guidelines of the paper you are writing to, you’ll be able to find these on their website or in a previous paper.

2. Start with a simple salutation.

Eg. “To the editor of the Otago Daily Times”

3. State your opinion or the argument you're responding to quickly and concisely. You’ll also need to state the name and date of the article or letter that you're responding to.

Eg: "I take issue with the energy minster’s opinion piece "Why we need Oil," (April 10th)."

4. Show off your creds. Mention anything that makes you especially qualified to write on a topic.

Eg: "As someone who has experienced flooding and is concerned about climate change I take issue with the energy minister’s opinion piece “Why we need Oil," (April 10th)"

4. Back it up with some facts. If you want your letter to be chosen, then you need to show that you've put some thought and research into formulating your letter.

Eg. Burning fossil fuels like oil releases climate changing pollutants into the atmosphere and top scientists say that burning needs to rapidly decrease. We can create over 30,000 jobs and NZ$7billion per year if our government steps up and backs our own homegrown clean-energy innovators who are providing solutions to the burning of fossil fuels.”

5. Say what should be done. Point the readers to actions they can take or give them a way to find more information on the subject.

Eg. “Come along to the upcoming community meeting on this issue; Wednesday (8th), 7pm at the Pavilion” or “Call the Minister of Energy and tell him his recent pro-oil legislative changes are unacceptable”

6. Have a simple closing. Have one sentence that summarizes your point of view on the issue so your readers have a clear reminder of your main message.

Eg. “The government should abandon their pro-oil policies and embrace our clean-energy industry.”

7. Sign off. Write your full name (and title, if relevant) and include your address, phone number, and e-mail address. Newspapers won't print anonymous letters, though in some cases they may withhold your name on request.