The Soapbox: Tips for writing letters to the editor

Town & Village is proud to present “The Soapbox,” a column featuring a different voice from the neighborhood in each one. All are welcome to submit columns on the topic of the author’s choice, preferably not longer than 650 words, to editor@townvillage.net.

By Seth Steiner

This humble discourse concerns some aspects of a popular form of civic engagement, letters to the editor (LTEs):

• writing them
• submitting them and having them published (although writing without submission may offer cathartic benefit in itself)
• enjoying the whole process.

Your letter may have an effect on some, or many, readers. Directly or indirectly it may impact the decision-making of your political representatives… and therefore the quality of your life. The icing on the cake is that the process itself can be satisfying for you.

Some of the following, I hope, will be useful in your letter endeavors. If you feel it’s worthwhile, please don’t hesitate to pass it on to others, making any additions or corrections that may be helpful.

Who the heck am I, personally, to expound on this topic? My first letter was published in a July, 1966 issue of the Long Island Star Journal. It was signed by me and three friends who, we felt, had been unfairly and arbitrarily banned from playing stickball in our neighborhood playground. As a direct result of our efforts, the NYC Parks Dept. changed its age-discriminatory policy. And that made a lasting impression on me, leading to several decades of pestering on paper… as well as in person.

My next letter advocated against U.S. policy in the Vietnam War and was published in my college newspaper, the State News (MSU). And then the war was over… a mere eight years later!

About 30 years later, as an adult living in Manhattan, a dozen or so of my letters appeared in our neighborhood paper, Town & Village. These LTEs took on various issues stemming from the unethical, and sometimes illegal, policies and activities of our landlord, Met Life. Those actions had adversely impacted the living conditions and personal finances of over 30 thousand fellow residents living in buildings owned by Snoopy’s corporation.

Sprinkled in there was a letter or two motivated solely by impishness and April 1st tomfoolery.

And now, after moving to Los Alamos, my letter focus has been mainly on the oil industry and its threats to our health, to the environment and to our economic well-being. LTEs have been part of a wide-ranging effort by many folks to bring attention to, and slow, the planned rapid expansion of dangerous oil drilling, and associated hazardous activities, too near our homes and our sources of drinking water. It’s led to some real successes (e.g., denials of permits for both PCEC drilling and for the Phillips 66 rail spur/oil train project). There’s much more to be done.

And why might you want to write a letter yourself, and maybe soon? Some reasons for writing your first, or your next, letter-to-the-editor:

1) offering an idea to inform or sway public opinion on a current and consequential matter
2) getting something in the civic realm “off your chest”
3) expressing something you believe others will also find amusing
4) achieving the satisfaction that any creative endeavor may offer… and once your first draft is down, the real fun begins as you sculpt and hone… trimming and enhancing it one word, phrase or thought at a time
5) seeing your name in print
6) having others (friends, neighbors, relatives) see your name in print
7) being part of the free and wide-ranging discourse that’s essential to a well-functioning democracy
8) releasing steam after reading someone else’s LTE that annoyed you, and
9) it doesn’t require marching in the rain with a placard but can be done in the comfort of your home, while in bed, or on the beach with a laptop.

What to write about? What’s going on locally or globally that concerns you? Even if you’re not an “expert,” your opinion counts and your voice is important. The number of possible topics for your letter is boundless… anything you care about.

Surprise?! Most of your submitted letters will actually be published.

Do not hesitate to express your thoughts. Don’t think that the way you express them will not “measure up,” will not be “100 percent accurate,” will not do “absolute justice” to the idea you have in mind, or that the topic is not the “most overriding issue in the world (galaxy)” today. Once you put pen to paper or finger(s) to keyboard, you’ve broken the ice and the writing will come easier than you might have expected.

Keep it longer rather than shorter to take up more space on the page and attract more eyeballs. But know that it may be subject to some editing by the newspaper; and the result will often be a piece with more punch. Keep it shorter rather than longer if you can accomplish your goal with brevity and focus.

If your publication piece is longer than the prescribed length for a letter, it may be offered as “commentary” (or “Soapbox”).

As you read LTEs written by others, consider what makes hem compelling for you. Whether or not you agree with the author’s stance on the issue, something may be learned. What was it about the presentation that got your attention, piqued your interest, swayed your thinking, broadened or changed your perception, or your actual conclusion?

OK, maybe it’s time to pick up that pen? We all look forward to reading your letter to the editor!

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