Wanna fight?

Received an annoying, four-page, single-spaced letter to the editor today, ripping me to shreds personally. It was ironically about the article I wrote featuring my old employer, which was a child welfare agency. The writer told me in no uncertain terms that I obviously have no clue how the child welfare system works. Heh. Bitch.

So this is my response to her and to everyone who wants to write to me. Thanks to Barbara J. Winter for encouraging me to write an article about this!

How to write print-worthy letters to the editor:

Tips from a trade association newspaper editor-in-chief

Everyone’s written a letter to the editor at one point or another. While many of us simply wanted to write to the publication as an FYI, let’s face it, a great deal of others want their words to be published.

Many editors are swimming in responses to their content, and that’s a good thing. We love letters, because that means we know we are reaching our target audience and that our subscribers are truly reading the content we so carefully selected to publish. And if nobody is commenting on what we’re doing, we assume we’re doing a terrific job and that our readers want to see more of the same. Or, we take risks until we incite some response. We want to get you thinking and talking. Our job is to provide you with the information — your job is to process it and do something with it. And oftentimes, what you do is want to give us your feedback … and while we welcome it, that doesn’t mean that we have to publish it.

The mistake many readers make is to only write when they are enraged, which results in a nasty letter to the editor that often never gets farther than the File 13 where the insulted editor deposits it. The following is a list of tips and tricks to ensure your letter is not only read but also shared through publication in the newspaper, magazine or newsletter that is part of your regular reading list:

1. Like a “Dear John” letter, if you are writing to express extreme anger or displeasure, go ahead and write it. Then tear it up and start over, now that you’re rational and ready for a discussion. The “delete” key is easier to reach than the “send” button for a reason!

2. Begin your letter by introducing yourself and why you are qualified to speak to the topic at hand (i.e., “As a licensed professional counselor, I was pleased to see an article about safety precautions home-based counselors should take …”).

3. Always include your full name, city and state and your contact e-mail address. If you do not want your e-mail address printed, please make that request clear to the editor. The editor may, in fact, keep your information on file to contact you as a source for a future story.

4. Keep it short. One or two paragraphs are preferred, with short, easy-to-read sentences. Keep in mind that general-circulation publications are aimed at people with an eighth-grade reading level.

5. When you start off by insisting that the editor and/or the writer do not know what they are talking about, or that you can’t imagine what they were thinking, the brilliant points you go on to make about the topic will be lost. Just because you write to us does not mean that we have to read, let alone publish, personal assaults.

6. You’re not my mom, so please don’t use my name in every paragraph or sentence. What right do have to be condescending to me?

7. When writing to a trade journal or newspaper, note that the editors and writers are professional journalists who may or may not have experience in the trade itself (i.e., medicine, psychology, consumer protection, etc.). Their job is to communicate what their members are doing in the field or information that may impact their members.

8. Don’t disguise professional inquiries as letters to the editor. Letters to the editor should never, ever require a personalized response.

9. Please organize your thoughts and run the spell/grammar check. Just as you want the facts to be clear and straight in any article you read, keep in mind that you are writing to someone who loves and enforces the English language for a living. If the editor doesn’t want to read your letter, nobody else will, either.

10. Letters to the editor are not job performance evaluations. If the topic of an article disgusts you or if you truly believe that a point of view was missing from a story, this is not your place to tell the editor that he or she is “irresponsible” or “a bad journalist” or any name you feel like typing into your letter. Remember the aforementioned delete key — because your editor sure will.

11. Journalism is about balance. Accordingly, praise the publication before raising your concern. The editor is much more likely to run your letter as well consider your point of view the next time that particular topic is written about.

12. Editors prefer letters to arrive via e-mail, without attachments. When you send a letter (especially a long one), someone must re-type your words, thus increasing the chance for error. Attachments are acceptable in Word or Rich Text Formats, but with the extra time it takes to run a virus scan on attachments, your chances of getting your letter read immediately increase when the editor can scroll through the original message without launching additional applications.

13. If you are so impassioned that you want to write an article instead of a letter, go for it! Pick up a recent copy of Writer’s Market and find out submission guidelines. Publications with tight budgets and deadlines may be receptive to a well-crafted story that presents a different viewpoint. Send your draft to the editor, who will likely ask you to add or re-write it, but at least that shows you are working together, not against, each other’s goals.

14. No SPAMming. Yes, the editor received your letter the first time — please don’t send multiple copies to him or her or to others on staff. A follow-up hard copy to an e-mail is annoying as well. When your editor is deleting the extra copies of your message, the original message might just go out the window after the others. A note about spamming: do not use your letter as a forum to promote your product or business, particularly if the readers will not benefit from it — this is not advertising space.

15. Try try again. Providing ongoing constructive feedback is not mandatory, but it certainly stands out in the editor’s overflowing inbox! Even if your first letter doesn’t make it into print, your second or third might. Editors are only human — we want what’s best for our publication, and we want the people reading the publication to contribute their perspective and support.

Whether it’s bearing good or bad news, editors enjoy receiving mail just as much as you do. And in the midst of deadlines, difficult writers, money-conscious publishers and printing crises, a letter offering a kind word has a funny way of brightening our days. Sometimes we wonder what we’re doing it for, but when one of our readers takes the time to say hello, share a thought and thank us for our work, believe it or not, that makes it all worth it. In the end, we are here to help each other.

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