Creating political will requires citizens and constituents to speak out and let their voices be heard. Short of face-to-face meetings, the best way to communicate your message to Congress is through letters to your elected representatives and to newspapers.
WRITING a Letter to the Editor One of the best ways to influence members of Congress and move the national conversation forward on solutions to climate change is to get letters to the editor published in your local paper. Congressional staffers monitor newspapers in their districts (among other things) to get a sense of public opinion.
Think of the newspaper’s editorial pages as sort of a town hall meeting that covers a wide range of topics. In essence, those editorial pages are a public conversation between the newspaper and its readers. The newspaper facilitates the discussion by choosing the topics brought up in the form of news stories, columns, or editorials. Your job as a letter-writer is to add your perspective to the clearly and concisely to the conversation.
Letters to the editor typically are 150-200 words long, meaning you are limited to 3 or 4 BRIEF paragraphs. They are the haiku of advocacy — short and sweet.
Start writing by asking yourself this question: What is my message and how does it relate to what I’ve seen recently in the news? Although there is no rigid formula, here is one approach:
Opening. In your very first sentence, cite the item(s) that you are responding to. For example, “Your editorial Saturday questioning the existence of climate change left me quite puzzled, given that the world’s glaciers are receding at record rates.” (Note: It’s okay to challenge a view, but never be disrespectful or snide.)
Transition to message. You don’t have much space, so shift quickly to your message. Start by stating the problem. “If we ignore what scientists are telling us, global temperatures will rise throughout the century with dire consequences — coastal flooding, droughts, famine, extinction of species.”
Propose a solution. This is the meat of your message. “We must reduce the level of carbon dioxide — the primary greenhouse gas — to a level that will avert these disastrous effects. Scientists tell us that level is 350 parts per million in the atmosphere. The most efficient and effective means to do this is to place a fee on carbon and return the revenue equally to all residents.”
Closing. Finish strongly either by referring back to the beginning of the letter (closing the circle) or with something clever. “Policy-makers can argue all they want, but Mother Nature doesn’t argue — and she doesn’t negotiate.”
Don’t try to say everything in one letter. There’s no room for it and you’ll just muddy the message.
SUBMITTING a Letter to the Editor
It’s not difficult, but you’ll be more successful if you know what an editor expects. Here are some rules of thumb:
Be prompt. If you are referring to events in the news or responding to an item in the newspaper, act quickly. The sooner you submit your letter – ideally, within a couple of days – the greater the chance that an editor will run it. Other people may be submitting letters on the same topic. The paper probably won’t run them all, so get yours in early.
Follow directions. Check the newspaper’s editorial page or website for instructions if you don’t know them already. Most specify a MAXIMUM number of words – typically 150 to 200 for larger dailies, often more for smaller community papers. If your letter is too long, cut unnecessary words, phrases, or sentences until it is not. There is no MINIMUM length.
Most newspapers accept letters electronically or by U.S. mail. Some may require you to use an online form for electronic submissions, while some accept submissions by email. If you submit by email, put everything in the BODY of your message. Don’t send attachments; many editors will not open them.
CCL-Madison’s “Letter-Writing Opportunities” email messages provide links for submitting letters to the Wisconsin State Journal and Capital Times. Click on those links for specific directions from each paper.
What information about me is required? Most newspapers ask for your name, home address, phone number, and email address. This is simply to verify that you are a real person and you are representing yourself. They will publish only your name and city or town. (Your name and contact information are not included in the word count.)
In most cases, it is best NOT to mention your affiliation with CCL. Editors tend to lump all letters from one organization together and may select only one if they know that people from one organization are submitting multiple letters.
Can I submit a letter to multiple newspapers? It’s best to target just one paper per letter. If you want to submit to more than one newspaper, make each letter at least somewhat unique. Every editor wants readers to perceive his/her newspaper as different from its competitors. Sending them all the same letter – and having them appear in multiple papers simultaneously – may make it harder to get your NEXT letter published. (Exception: A paper owned by a chain, like Gannett, may share your letters with others in the chain).
How often can I write a letter? Although you can SUBMIT letters as often as you wish, daily newspapers usually will PUBLISH no more than one letter by the same writer every month or two. This is especially true if you are writing on the same topic, like climate change. Each newspaper has its own policy. If in doubt, email or phone the editor for specifics.
How will I know if my letter has been accepted for publication? You may or may not get an email or call from the paper. Your best bet is to watch every edition for your letter. Most published letters appear within a week to 10 days of submission. If yours does not appear in that time, chances are it won’t be published, but you can always submit another.
Every letter counts. Remember that most daily newspapers publish only a fraction of the letters they receive, but an editor reads every one. Even if only one or two are published, receiving several or many letters on a topic can influence a newspaper to cover a story more closely or weigh in with an editorial. That’s why writing letters to the editor is ALWAYS worthwhile.
How anyone can support and increase the value of writers' work . . .
Carrie Scherpelz, a communications professional and member of our chapter who has written op-eds for daily newspapers from Milwaukee to Seattle to Fort Lauderdale, urges each of us to take these simple steps to multiply the value every op-ed and letter to the editor by a CCL author:
1. Go to the link to view the article online. (That counts as a view.) 2. Share the article via your social media or email from that link. 3. Comment if you feel the urge, including on the media Facebook page.
These are the steps that increase views and shares, a good thing in itself for educating the public. It also makes media sources more likely to publish our work, because it demonstrates readers are interested. HAPPY SHARING, even if you prefer not to write!
Do not send attachments. Compose your letter in Word if you want, then cut and paste everything into the body of your email. Be sure to include your name, complete address, and phone number.
Write Your Members of Congress When you write to a newspaper, you'll multiply your impact by sending a copy of your letter to your U.S. representative and senators, even if it's not published. Send these letters at the same time you submit your letter to the newspaper.
Following is an excerpt from Wisconsin State Journal Article January 1, 2017 by Scott Milfred "Letters to the Editor Amplify your Voice" We firmly believe that publishing your views in the State Journal helps lead to a better capital city and state. If you haven’t submitted a letter to the editor, please give it a try. Send 200 words to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Letters to the Editor, P.O. Box 8058, Madison, WI 53708. You also can type your letter into an electronic form by going to https://madison.com/forms/online_services/letter/. Please include your address and phone number for verification. We don’t have room to print everything we receive. But the more you send us, the more likely you are to be published. Letters to the editor make a difference. Local and state leaders read them. We know that because they often respond to or cite them. And appearing in the newspaper dramatically amplifies your message, reaching tens of thousands of readers in print and more online. (Full article here.)