Writing an Effective Letter
By Eric Sparling
"The media is my friend. The media is my friend."
Repeat this mantra to yourself over and over again. It's often not true, but it will help prepare you for one of the most important tasks you can perform in the fight against breed discrimination:
Writing a letter to a newspaper editor.
I have a bit of an addiction to this activity. At last count, I had more than 30 letters published in the Globe and Mail alone. A letter to the editor is the simplest way you, the breeder/dog owner, can sway public opinion, change a newspaper's editorial stance, or combat an arrogant politician.
How do you get a letter published?
I'll tackle the easy part of that challenge first. We'll call this:
- Try to keep your letter under one hundred words, and never exceed two hundred.
- Spell check your letter, read it through half a dozen times, and then spell check it again. You are trying to persuade professional writers and editors to publish your opinion. Typos will hurt your chances. (Hope I don't have any in this essay!)
- Send your letter before 1 pm. By early afternoon, editors are already starting to choose their favorite letters for the following day's paper.
- Include your complete contact information - address and phone number.
- Never send a letter to more than one newspaper. If you want to send letters to two papers, write two different letters.
- Send your letter by email. Snail mail is too slow. You can find "letter to the editor" email addresses on most newspapers' web-sites.
Like I said, that's the easy part. The tough part is writing a persuasive letter. We'll call this:
Making the Sale
- Have a specific point to make and stick to it ruthlessly. After you've written your letter, go back and remove anything that doesn't support that central point.
- Don't be angry. Rage won't get published. If you want to attack someone, use sarcasm, humor, or cold, rational arguments.
- Keep your sentences short. After you've written your letter, go back and see if the longer sentences can be divided into two sentences. And don't be shy about using sentence fragments. This isn't grade 10 English class - grammar isn't as important as style.
- Not confident of your writing style? It's easier than you think. Just remember this simple rule: Write like you're speaking to someone. The great part is, before you submit it, you get to polish that "speech" over and over again until it's perfect.
- Tie your letter into a story, preferably one that was in the current day's newspaper. Find an angle. Did the journalist misidentify a breed? Did the politician who was interviewed say something false? Did a columnist say something smart that you think you can add to?
- Look for non-pit bull stories to tie into. One of my letters in the Globe and Mail used a story about the sushi ban as a launch point. I used the government's incompetence on the sushi ban to question their competence on the pit bull ban.
- Newspapers won't publish your letter unless the topic is in the news that week. So, you have to maximize every opportunity. Every morning, do a quick Internet scan of your local paper and the big dailies. Five minutes should tell you if anyone is reporting on breed bans or recent dog attacks. When those appear, take action.
- Always remember: Not everyone loves dogs. What's in it for them? Why should they care what you have to say? Try to refer back to universal principles: honest government; freedom; the rights of citizens; truth. They may not like your dog but they will still understand your point.
- For the "subject" of your email, try to come up with something that reads like a newspaper headline. You want your email to stand out and the "subject" box might be your only chance.
- After you finish writing your letter, sit on it, even just for half an hour. Then, reread it and make sure you're happy with it before you press "send."
Not every communication with a newspaper needs to be a letter to the editor. Thank a columnist via email if you liked what she had to say. Challenge a columnist - politely - if you didn't. And if you think a newspaper has been doing a truly, spectacularly terrible job, call them on it. Send them a strongly worded letter - but not abusive - showing them the error of their ways. They may dislike you, but your words will still echo in their heads the next time they write a story. (But beware: this technique is risky - it may backfire on you. Never lose your cool and never burn bridges.)
In most cases, silence works to the government's advantage. It's not good for our cause that the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star barely reported on the passing of Bill 132. We need people to wake up. Letters to the editor are one of the best ways to do that.
Also, don't just limit your letters to the breed ban. One of the best ways to get this ban overturned is to get the Liberals turfed out of office. Whenever they make a mistake, be it health, education, or energy, we want to expose their error with a published letter. And whenever the other parties get something right, send in a letter about that, contrasting the success of the Opposition with the failure of the Liberals.
Don't get discouraged. I probably submit four or five letters for every one that gets published. But, ideally, if we all start writing, no mistake in a newspaper story will go unchallenged or uncorrected.
We have no choice: We have to play the media game and we have to win.
Eric Sparling is a freelance journalist and Staffordshire Bull Terrier owner (Pixie, out of Clandara).