Letters to the Editor: The Inside Scoop From A Former Newsweek Letters Editor

When the Paws PR team devises long-term proactive communications plans on behalf of clients, one tactic we often include is the submission of carefully crafted Letters to the Editor.  By responding to an article in a newspaper or magazine, you can position your company or organization as an expert. A Letter to the Editor provides you with an opportunity to dispute points made in an article, expand on issues raised in an article or educate the readers on the topic.  A carefully crafted LTE can be a powerful way to disseminate your organization’s key messages.

But how do you write a letter that will catch the eye of the editor at the publication? I asked Jennifer Townsend, former editor at Newsweek for her perspective and insight:

Letters to the Editor

Many years ago when Newsweek was still a print magazine in the original sense, I worked in the Letters Department as manager. In my five-year tenure at Newsweek, thousands of letters crossed my desk and of those only a small fraction made it to print.  images

Letters chosen to represent opinions in Letters to the Editor columns are those that are concise, factual, some times witty but always clear in point.  I worked for five years in the job and helped pick nearly every letter printed during that time.  We looked for the best letter or letters to represent the majority opinion on any given topic but what we really appreciated was the “authority”– someone who could give a relevant, yet unexpected point of view.  While everyone has an opinion, the weight of someone who has  “lived” it, “worked” it, “experienced” is always appreciated.

There is an ongoing joke in England about letters signed “Outraged in Tunbridge Wells.”  Tunbridge Wells is an upper-middle class neighborhood that has the reputation of having very conservative and easily offended residents. Is this true, not entirely—more like everyone getting tarred with the same brush but the mocking stereotype has stuck.  In my tenure at Newsweek, we never printed a letter that began “I am outraged by your coverage…” While the letter that began with those words may have indeed ended up in print, that opening never did because “Outraged” is such an over-the-top, emotional word.  Keep emotion in check when you write a letter and keep focus on your point.

The best chance of getting your letter to the editor in print is to:Give your credentials up front if you are writing based on personal authority: “As President of the city’s humane organization I have supervised our successful Trap-Neuter-Return program for the past five years.” Then state your reason for writing…”I am hopeful the City Council will vote to endorse the Trap-Neuter-Return program which is the humane solution for the cats and the community.”

Alternatively, open with a rhetorical question such as “Why does catching and killing cats cost more to the taxpayers than TNR?”  Then answer your own question as a way to state your opinion.

Most importantly, use tempered language no matter how strongly you feel about your subject. Starving children should make you outraged, not a story covering the bi-election.  A calm argument can still evoke passion and is much more likely to be heard than one rife with hyperbole and hysteria.

Keep the letter short and to the point. Be sure to spend time studying other letters that have appeared in the publication to get a sense of style and length.

Time is of the essence! Don’t wait until Thursday to respond to an article that appeared in the Sunday newspaper. If you are writing to a daily or weekly publication, submit a letter within 24 hours of publication. A monthly publication should be submitted within the week.

Jennifer Lucas Townsend is a copywriter and editor with Paws PR. Most recently, Jennifer finished the second draft of her memoir, an excerpt of which was published by Gravel magazine.  Jennifer lives in Wisconsin with her family and their two rescue cats, Samantha and Winston. Follow her at The Checkered Chicken blog.

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