Elements of Political Communication: Traditional media guidelines – Op-eds and letters to the editor

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A close-up photograph of a fountain pen and a slightly out-of-focus piece of paper, possibly a newspaper.
However you choose to write your letter, use these tips to ensure its publication.

A letter to the editor is a short (~200 words) piece that addresses a particular article or subject from a recent edition of the publication. An op-ed, by the strictest definition, is a medium-length piece (~500 words) solicited by the publication to oppose the position of the editorial board. This is where the term “op-ed” comes from: the “opposite of the editorial”, not “opinion-editorial”. That said, the lines in today’s media are blurry. A letter to the editor can be much longer in some instances and an op-ed need not be solicited or be the opposite opinion of the editorial board. Your situation will determine how you structure your piece. The editor may change it anyway.

Content[edit]

Know your audience and what they can do to help your cause. Do not just express an opinion; advocate a position and give the reader the tools needed to take the next step. Advocating a position involves expressing your opinion and suggesting what the reader should do about it. If Problem X exists, advocate how to correct it. If Candidate X is the best person for the job, suggest ways to support that person. Examples of support include visiting a campaign or issue website, volunteering, or just by voting a particular way. Address the readership of the publication, not an individual or niche. Each publication has its own demographics, so don’t submit the same piece to multiple places. Writing to The New York Times regarding a local election is obviously a waste of time, but so is writing a partisan piece on a national issue for the local newspaper. Editors typically favor the expression of individual ideas over general talking points, and they are more likely to publish letters that include a story involving self-interest.[1] Introduce a personal perspective to relate to the audience why your opinion is valid. You may be tempted to create a laundry list of facts and statistics, but that is not the purpose of an op-ed or letter to an editor. Rhetorical devices such as metaphors, short anecdotes, or reasonable appeals to emotion are more effective at convincing people of your point of view than an assortment of statistics.

Format[edit]

Your piece should be between 200-500 words long. Shorter pieces are acceptable but will not take up as much space on the published page. Details like font, margins, and other formatting options are not important unless your document uses non-traditional or awkward markup. Making the process more difficult for the editor (such as submitting in .pdf format or via snail mail) makes it less likely your piece will be published. Paragraph breaks will be determined by the editor, as will the headline.

How-to[edit]

Begin writing an op-ed or letter to the editor by concisely expressing how you feel about the issue in one or two sentences. In a few more sentences, explain the importance of the issue, though this may not be necessary if you’re writing about a national issue currently in the spotlight. Then, in one or two short paragraphs, elaborate on your reasons for having this opinion. Express what you believe your audience can do to further this particular cause. This call to action is important; without it, readers may not feel propelled to do anything, even if they agree with your point of view, unless you guide them in the right direction.

Go back to the beginning of your piece and briefly explain who you are and explain any relevant details. If possible, find a unique perspective from which you can view the issue and include it the introduction to gain readers' attention. Write a very brief conclusion, preferably a one sentence zinger that calls back to the unique perspective in the introduction. Writers often express their frustration with creating effective introductions and conclusions, but this strategy makes writing these sections an easier task.

Before submitting your piece, check to see if it answers the following questions:

  • Who are you and how do you relate to X?
  • Why is X important?
  • What is your view on X?
  • Why do you think that about X?
  • What can we do about X?

This structure is not set in stone, but it will help the struggling writer reach 200-500 words. Experiment to find your voice.

Examples[edit]

Generic candidate support letter

The other day, I ran through my subdivision in Town X, where I have lived for the past few years. As I weaved between mailboxes and skipped up curbs, I noticed a headline on the front of the Town Gazette. It said “Candidate Y to Challenge Candidate X in Election”.

This election will determine who will represent our community for many years to come. Representatives from this area vote on important problems that affect our lives, so we cannot afford to ignore these pressing issues.

I am for Candidate X. I am against Candidate Y.

Candidate X has many years of experience volunteering for his community by serving on various boards and committees. This includes a few years on the Pertinent Review Board, which addressed the important issue of pertinence last year. He has consistently voted to help our citizens, as opposed to his opponent, who has avoided addressing the issues repeatedly. I strongly recommend that voters research these candidates and their positions on these important issues by visiting this publication’s voter’s guide on the election. Anyone can contact Candidate X's campaign by visiting example.com, facebook.com/example, or twitter.com/example.

I doubt if my words will change how the candidates run their campaigns, but I can assure you they will affect how I run my workouts: From now until election day, I will be running through Town X in my “Elect Candidate X” T-shirt.

-Name

This example is very generic, but this allows the writer to ensure he or she includes everything, and it allows for a broader application. Whenever possible, be specific about your positive points. For example, replace "many years" in the above letter with however many years of experience the candidate actually has (assuming the length is reasonable for the position sought).

Generic issue support letter

Dear editor,

Boy, it's hot outside! These are the days that make us stay inside and soak up that wonderfully cool air from our air conditioners.

But not everyone has this convenience. Sometimes it's scary to think about the folks out there who may not be able to escape from the oppressive sun during heat waves like the one we're experiencing. The elderly, especially, often have trouble in times like these. I call my grandmother every day now to make sure she's okay and well hydrated.

Other people around town are suffering as well. It seems like our society ought to be able to come up with a solution to this problem, but it always catches us by surprise.

That's why I support the expansion of the Generic Home Fund Grant program in our city. The city disburses the grants to lower income residents trying to upgrade their homes to pay for things like efficient air conditioning units.

We all take things for granted, sometimes, but the next time you're enjoying your cool home, think about your fellow neighbors. Contact your city councilman today by visiting the city's website, example.com, and ask them to expand this program. This isn't just for grandma; it's a good idea for our community.

-Name

This letter is less formal, but still concerns a serious subject in a respectful manner. The sentence beginning with "But" in the second paragraph signals a shift to a more serious tone, but the style remains consistent.

Review[edit]

Which sentence is the most effective?
A: I believe Candidate X is the right person for the job.
B: Candidate X is the right person for the job.
C: Vote for candidate X for Smith County Dog Catcher, Place 1 on November 2nd.
D: Candidate X is the right person for the job, and I encourage voters to vote for him/her for Smith County Dog Catcher, Place 1 on November 2nd.
Answer: D. The first and second choices offer an opinion, but no action for the reader to take. The third offers action, but no real opinion.


Which salutation is the most appropriate?
A: Journalist X, your article last month was biased...
B: Dear Hispanic readers of The Morning News,...
C: Dear readers,...
D: To whom it may concern:...
Answer: C. Salutations are rarely necessary for letters to the editor, and never needed in op-eds. If one is appropriate, however, use one that applies to all of your audience (or simply "Dear editor"). Newspapers rarely publish letters that address only a segment of their readers.


Which personal narrative is the most effective?
A: I have lived in Town X for 12 years. For eight of those, I have served this community by volunteering for Foundation Y. During this session, the city council will consider HB XXXX, which will cut state funding for this wonderful program.
B: I have lived in Town X for 12 years, the last eight of which I have spent volunteering for various organizations including Foundation A, Foundation B, Foundation Y, and many other organizations. During this session, the city council will consider HB XXXX, which will cut funding for Foundation Y, which is a great program.
C: During this session, the city council will consider HB XXXX, which will cut state funding for Foundation Y, for which I have volunteered at during the last eight years. I have lived in Town X for 12 years.
D: I have lived in Town X for 12 years. For eight of those, I have served this community by volunteering for Foundation Y, but during this session, the city council will consider HB XXXX, which will cut state funding for this program I've worked so hard for.
Answer: A. The second choice adds superfluous information that can distract from the flow of the narrative. Assume that readers are only interested in the essential parts of your story. The third choice is backwards: The personal aspect should function as a segue into your point, not the other way around. The fourth choice is too personal, in that it leads the reader to believe that the issue is really about you, not the foundation.


Which appeal is the most effective?
A: During the 2007–2008 school year, the UIL conducted 10,117 tests for anabolic steroids, including 6,455 males and 3,662 females. There were two confirmed positive results. 2008 Fall: 18,817 tests, 7 CPs. 2009 Spring: 16,260 tests, 8 CPs. 2009 Fall: 3,133 tests, 2 CPs. 2010 Spring: 3,308 tests, 0 CPs. 2010 Fall: 2,083 tests, 1 CP.
B: Imagine spending millions of dollars every year to test tens of thousands of people for a condition you didn’t think they had. That's high school steroid testing in a nutshell.
C: Imagine spending millions of dollars in 2007 to test 6,455 male and 3,662 female high school athletes at random for steroids.
D: We spent millions of dollars to conduct 10,117 tests for anabolic steroids in high school athletes in 2007, and we found only two positives. We almost doubled that in 2008, and then we've cut the program substantially since then.
Answer: B. Although not as precise, the second choice offers a shorter, more rhetorical version of the first sentence. If necessary, embed the most important statistics in the remainder of the piece.


Notes[edit]

Press releases