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The How and Why of Writing Letters to the Editor
from No Compromise Issue 26
by William Randolph Hearst
First question: Why bother? Why write letters to the
editor? This topic often provokes one of two responses in animal activists. For
some, writing to newspapers is almost a fetish - an activity so enthusiastically
embraced that it�s clearly absurd. On the other hand, some folks in the movement
regard letters to the editor as the most useless form of armchair activism.
Both groups should re-think their position. Indeed, it�s true that we�ll never
achieve animal liberation simply by getting more letters published in the New
York Times. If you could change society that way, then cranky senior citizens
who sit home all day writing screeds against saggy pants would have long ago
succeeded in abolishing all hip-hop-related fashion.
But letters to the editor can be a useful tool. The letters page of a newspaper
or magazine offers a good chance to make the case for animal liberation without
being immediately contradicted or cut off, as can happen all too frequently to
activists in other forms of media coverage.
As a journalist, I can tell you that the opinion page is one of the most popular
sections of most newspapers - and it reaches some influential people. Many
politicians monitor letters to the editor to get a feel for the views of their
If you�re going to write a letter, here are some basic tips that will increase
your chance of getting published.
~ Keep it short and stick to a single topic. Newspapers usually have strict
limits on the length of letters. Most want 200 words or fewer�but try to keep
your letter even shorter, because that will give it an edge.
~ Make your point early. Try to state your main point in the first or second
sentence of your letter.
~ Mention an article already printed by the paper. Note the headline of the
article you�re responding to, along with the date it ran. Editors give priority
to such letters�especially if they arrive soon after the piece is published. Try
to get your letter off the same day, if possible.
~ Use reasonably simple words and short sentences. You�re trying to communicate
with as broad an audience as possible.
~ Include your full address and a daytime telephone number. This info won�t be
published, but the editor may want to call to verify your identity.
~ Use e-mail. Papers still accept letters sent by fax or through the mail, but
e-mail is quicker and easier for them. When you use e-mail, never send your
letter as an attached document. Most newspapers are far too fearful of viruses
to open attachments. Instead, just paste your letter into the body of your
~ Check your work. Use your computer�s spell check, print the letter out and
read it out loud, and consider asking a friend to proof your work. It�s not
fair, but the editor may discount your argument if you make a basic error in
spelling or grammar.
For more advice on writing letters, you can turn to the websites of most of the
large animal protection organizations. You may also find
www.dawnwatch.com a useful resource.
Basically, the odds are on your side. It�s true that most papers get a lot of
letters to the editor--hundreds a day, in some cases--but they get relatively
few good ones. If you write a short letter that makes a well-reasoned argument
about a hot-button topic like animal rights, you stand a good chance of getting
Will your letter change the world? Obviously not. But you might persuade some
readers to think differently about animals. That�s a worthy goal�as long as you
don�t let it distract you from other forms of activism.