Viewpoint: Persuasive Letters to the Editor

As vehicles to persuade anyone of anything, the vast majority of letters to small papers on political issues are a complete waste of time. It’s not hard to see why. Conveying your views on a complex issue in a small number of words is not easy (a typical limit for letters is 200 words; for op-ed pieces, it’s often 500). It’s virtually impossible if you don’t consider what might really convince people with attitudes very different from your own—and it’s pretty obvious that most of the writers haven’t considered that.

The following comments are based on my observations over many years of writing letters to the editor and op-eds, as well as reading other people’s letters. I assume your main purpose in writing the letter is to convince people of something, not to let off steam or to provide additional ammunition for people who already agree with you.

The general principles behind an effective letter are simple. Above all, you must not alienate your audience; instead, strive to write in a style they’ll be able to relate to and construct arguments that will make sense to them. The people to convince are those who don’t already agree with you and who are at least somewhat open to your viewpoint. For liberal writers, most likely those people are people who think of themselves as independents or moderate Republicans; people with little or no connection to academia; and those who are not very well educated (you might think poorly educated people don’t read letters to the editor, but in my experience a lot of them write letters to the editor, often commenting on previous letters: strong evidence they do read them). The narrowness of the audience you care about makes things easier, but only if you keep clearly in mind that they’re probably not the kind of people you usually talk to!

While the principles behind an effective letter are simple, actually writing one isn’t easy. Here are some specific guidelines.

  1. Be as specific as possible, especially about people you disagree with. Don’t say “Republicans” do something you think is bad, thereby instantly turning off a huge proportion of the readers you’re trying to convince. Instead, say something like “the Republican leadership,” or—even better—avoid the word “Republican” completely by saying “Trump’s campaign” or some such. This is very important and not just a matter of style for persuasive writing! It’s easy to think of the people behind something you despise as the “Republicans” or “Muslims,” but a lot of the time it’s a much narrower group than the obvious term describes. Thinking carefully about what defines the specific group is very helpful in several ways, for example, in deciding what you think should be done.
  2. If there’s any way to avoid it, don’t associate yourself with organizations the political right has successfully demonized in the popular mind. The ACLU is, unfortunately, an outstanding example of a demonized organization. Mentioning the ACLU favorably is probably all it takes to turn off a larger percentage of readers in many local papers.
  3. Don’t use fancy words or phrases. For example, instead of “in the popular mind,” say “for most people.” Write in an informal style. A letter to the editor that sounds anything like a journal paper will not be very effective, especially with non-academic readers.
  4. Don’t use cliches. For example, if you say “All war is wrong,” many readers will instantly dismiss your letter as coming from an starry-eyed idealist who has no idea what the real world is like.

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