Letters to the Editor
An effective way to get your views in front of thousands of people is to have a letter to the editor published – and it’s free! These days many papers publish their letters on their websites increasing your exposure and also, sometimes, allowing others to comment directly online giving you the opportunity to debate them.
Only a fraction of letters sent to the major dailies are published. So if at first you don’t succeed, don’t be discouraged. Keep trying.
Here are some tips that we have picked up over the years (not in any particular order of importance).
These days, papers such as The Australian, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and others, tend to publish letters regarding a news item on the day after the item appears – and only that day. If you rely on snail mail you’ll generally miss the boat. Not all papers operate this way – The Canberra Times often publishes letters several days after they were sent. Maybe they wait to get a spread of opinion before printing.
All papers have an email address in their printed pages and/or on their website. Some also have a page on their website for direct submission of comment which may or may not also be considered for the print edition.
Look for opportunities in the paper. They may not always be in the first few pages. If you can address and refer to an article published that day then the letters editor will be more inclined to publish your letter. Refer to the article by its title, date and page number.
Short letters are loved by editors. Most papers have a separate section for letters of around 50 words but will also place them in the general letters if they need to fill some space. It’s good discipline to trim your letters to the bare bones – getting your message across as neatly as possible.
But if you need more words, don’t be afraid to use them. Still – around 200-250 words should not be exceeded. Most papers won’t print a lot of long letters.
If replying to an article or letter, restate the points you are refuting (or endorsing) as briefly as possible. They’ve already been published in detail.
It’s good to be able to start on a certain idea, expand it, reinforce it then finish up by returning to your initial point. If you can finish with a short, sharp statement then all the better.
Be wary of trying to cover too many points in one letter. Keep your readers focused.
‘Him’ or ’her’ - not ‘it’
This won’t particularly help in getting you published but is important for our cause.
Refer to nonhuman animals with human, personal pronouns such as, “A battery hen’s life is miserable as she is restricted to a cage with no more space than a piece of A4 paper and cannot carry out her natural behaviours.” Refer to animals’ bodies or corpses – not their carcasses. The use of ‘it’ and other impersonal words perpetuates the treatment of animals as objects. Spell-checkers will tell you you’re wrong and some editors will ‘correct’ you. To counter this, you can put a short explanation at the bottom of your letter saying that the use of ‘he’ and ‘she’ is not accidental – that you do it to help support your arguments.
This is a tough one. Usually the matters we write about are not just serious – they are tragic. But if you can find something funny to say, the editor will love you for it.
Like humour – a little cleverness will improve your chances of being published. Use alliteration. For example, “It’s that time of the year when fine-looking females file into Flemington to flaunt their fashionable frocks and feathered fascinators.” Or try poetry. If you can say what you want to say in rhyme, again, you’ll be the editor’s best friend.
As much as you’re tempted to refer to the previous letter writer as “an idiot who obviously hid behind the door when the compassion gene was handed out”, you’ll be more effective (and more likely to be published) if you keep the language civil and your arguments logical.
Some papers format their letters in a particular way such as starting with “Editor,” and ending with “Yours etc”. These are a tad quaint these days and generally only in smaller, regional papers. But if you’re replying to a letter it doesn’t hurt to save the editor the trouble by putting these bits in.
All papers ask that you include your name, address and day-time phone number. They only publish name and suburb (and State if you’re published interstate) but they may use the phone number to verify that you wrote the letter – at least the first time.
Sharing ideas and opportunities strengthens you. It used to be that people in different cities had to monitor their local papers and let others know when there was a story or letter to counter. But these days, websites like ‘Press Display’ allow us to search and monitor hundreds of papers online. Other papers publish a lot of their content online including, in some cases, their letters to the editor.
Most online papers and some access to Press Display are free but it’s worth the $1 (or so) per day to get full access to Press Display. If you’re working as a group, the costs can be shared along with the leads.
Working together also allows team work – where an issue is multi-faceted, different aspects can be addressed by different writers. It is also terrific to get positive feedback including constructive tips from fellow writers.
Look further abroad
Don’t limit your self to your local papers. Many papers will accept letters from interstate readers – even international readers. That’s the nature of newspapers today and, sadly, it’s also the nature of animal usage – it’s universal. Though do be careful if you are venturing ‘far from home’ that you are aware of any laws or conditions that may be different from those applying to your location. You may come across as a bit silly if you call for a ban on animal circuses in a paper published in a jurisdiction which has already banned them.
Pick your time
Approaching Mothers’ Day is a good time to highlight the appalling way farmed mothers are treated. Likewise Christmas is a good time to return to the treatment of turkeys and chickens.
On the other hand, if some national or international story comes up where everyone wants their say but which has nothing to do with what you want to say, take a break. There’ll be limited space available for a while so wait, if you can, for a less hectic news period.