The letters to the editor section of a newspaper is its most widely read section. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, this section has been a battleground for pro- and anti-Muslim views. This is why it's important for all Muslims, no matter what their level of writing skill, to know how to write a letter to the editor.
If that doesn’t convince you of the importance of using this section as a forum in which to present correct information about Islam and challenge stereotypes, for instance, consider four other reasons:
1. You have a diverse audience within easy reach
Who reads the letters to the editor section? While sports buffs will read the sports section and stock traders the business pages, both are likely to check out the letters to the editor page(s).
That means you’ve got a diversity of audience you would not have if you published something in one of the paper’s specific sections. By writing a letter to the editor, you have the power to send a message to all sorts of people. You won’t be preaching to the converted.
2. Letters to the editor have credibility
Your letter carries a certain authority because it is coming from an average citizen. It is not coming from the newspaper’s journalist, who is essentially there to promote the newspaper’s interests. Your voice is the voice of the people. Use it.
3. Easy publicity for your cause
Printing an advertisement in the newspaper to promote your cause can run in the high thousands. Writing a letter to the editor costs less than a dollar (locally): the cost of a postage stamp or sending a fax.
4.The more letters, the more influence
Have you tried writing letters in the past only to find them not published? If so, don’t think this was a waste of time.
While publications may only be able to publish a few of the letters they receive (often due to space constraints), editors are influenced by the amount of mail they get on a given topic. An article or editorial that many readers respond to is more likely to be followed up with future articles on the same topic. Keep the debate going on an issue by continuing to send in letters!
Letter-writing tips that can help you get published
Now, if you’ve never written a letter to the editor before or have had yours repeatedly rejected, don’t despair. Here are six tips that can increase the likelihood of your letter getting published:
1. Respond right away
Too often, we tend to wait until over a week has elapsed after an event or an article was published to respond with a letter to the editor. This makes it less likely it will be published. The sooner you send in your letter the better.
2. Feel the emotion behind it
Writing is often an emotional exercise, and some of our strongest and best expressed thoughts are those driven by the engine of emotion. Try to feel strongly about what you are writing about, whether the feeling is positive (i.e. happiness) or negative (i.e. anger). This can add emphasis to your letter and help you focus better.
A word of caution though: avoid sounding too angry, outraged, etc. It could make you look like a ranting lunatic. Be strong in expression, but moderate. As the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) regularly advises letter writers, "be firm but polite".
3. Go back to the source of the letter
Refer back to a specific article in the newspaper which was your original reason for writing. This should include the date, page number and overall topic. Newspapers are looking for responses to their material, so be as specific as possible in providing the reference for it in your letter.
4. Keep it short
Most publications have limits on the length of letters to the editor. If you don’t find this information in the letters section, call or e-mail and ask for their guidelines. The shorter the better. Remember, most people today have shorter attention spans, so you need to say what you’ve got to say quickly. Keeping your letter short (i.e. under 400 words) is likely to lead to your letter being published and more people reading it.
5. Keep it simple
In line with keeping it short is keeping your letter simple. Speak simply and at a level most people can understand. Using complicated words and phrases will not increase the clarity of your message.
6. Stick to one or two main points
It’s hard not to go off on a tangent, but this must be done if a letter is to remain short and concise. Pick one or two points to discuss in your letter briefly and concisely.
7. Include the information you are asked for
Along with how long a letter should be, most publications expect certain information to be added to letters to the editor. These include full name, daytime telephone number and your signature. Follow these instructions precisely otherwise your letter may be rejected.
8. Get someone else to read it
Find someone to proofread your letter. This will allow someone who is not so close to the issues you're discussing to look at it with fresh eyes. Take advantage of this opportunity to improve your letter in its content and format. Incorporate what you feel is useful.
9. Type it and fax it
Typing your letter makes it easier to read. Faxing it gets it to the newspaper faster than snail mail and about 70 percent of editors say they prefer faxes.
1. Call if your letter is not published
Many times, if a letter is to be published, a newspaper will call the writer in advance by a few days to confirm that they have written the letter.
If two weeks have elapsed since you sent the letter, give the person responsible for letters to the editor at the publication a call and see what happened. If they have the time, perhaps ask them quickly why your letter was not published, or if they can send you a more detailed e-mail about this if possible.
2. If you don’t get published, don’t lose heart!
Even if your letter has not been published, there are three good things which will result:
a. you will improve your writing skills.
b. you will have communicated a message that will, in most cases, be read and affect the mind of a reader in favor of your opinion.
c. you’re one step closer to being published, Insha Allah, (if Allah wills).
d. If media outlets get letters from a dozen people raising the same issue, they will most likely publish one or two of them. So even if your letter doesn't get into print, it may help another one with a similar point of view get published.