Letters for Liberation
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 constituents.

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 e-mail.
  • 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 it published.

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.