By Mary McLeod
It does me good to write a letter which is not a response to a demand — a gratuitous letter, so to speak, which has accumulated in me like the waters of a reservoir.
— Henry Miller
My propensity to write letters to the editor is well known, but not well understood. When someone says to me, “I saw your last letter in the paper, and agreed with what you wrote,” I sometimes respond, “Well, I write a lot, because I consider the letters section our equivalent of the ‘public square.’ I’d love to see your letter published, too.”
They inevitably pale, mumble something incoherent, and sidle away. (Although one friend to whom I said this three weeks ago had a letter published recently.)
I realize that some people are shy about sharing their views, or about displaying their writing skills or lack thereof. But surely most of my friends don’t have issues with either, so why don’t they write? They read the letters, they remember what they’ve read, and they’re interested and engaged. What stops them?
It’s not hard to remember my trepidation the first time I submitted a letter, and wondered whether it would be published, then cringed when I saw it in print. How would my friends react? Did I express myself clearly enough? Make some good arguments? Or did I disgrace myself in public?
Minnesota Nice being what it is, those who disagreed or simply dismissed my ramblings would probably never say so to my face. And there was no way to account for this, since I wouldn’t know who had seen it in the first place.
Then I had an epiphany: At least I had tried. That was enough. Over the years, it became so much easier, and now I have a folder full of pages torn from newspapers—a few from the New York Times, one from the Pioneer Press, most from the Star Tribune—each containing a letter of mine.
I have learned that various newspapers handle letters differently. Some write back and ask that I provide a source for facts alleged, some simply print a balance of views expressed, and some don’t seem to care what you write. But once a newspaper underling called to question my math, and was right to ask—it was a typo on my part. The New York Times has asked me for verification or citations, so do have your facts in order for them.
I’m retired, so I can’t harm or embarrass an employer, and nearly all of my friends share my general points of view, so among my familiars, I’m preaching to the choir. But at least I express myself—including the letters that are never submitted.
Over the years, I have drafted some guidelines for writing a letter to the editor, which I presented to the Humanists of Minnesota Social Action Team soon after it was created. When the Strib later published its own guidelines, there was considerable overlap between mine and theirs, except I also stated that “Editors are people, too.” I advised that the shorter the letter, the more likely it was to be printed since it would help the editor fill space and increase clicks or “eyeballs.”
I also suggested including an unusual word or amusing anecdote— something to make it stand out, entertain, or teach the reader something new. One of my favorite letters is this one, published in July 2017:
On my way to an appointment this morning, I drove past a corner nearby where two little guys were making money for a song — literally. Their hand-lettered sign read, “Song 25 cents.” For such a small sum from me, they would brighten my day, and the entire amount was pure profit for them. That’s creativity, a touch of kindness and a lot of thriftiness rolled into a touching package. Who could resist such curb appeal?
I received more “atta-girls” from friends about that letter than most others, and I like to think it also told the editor something more about me as a human being and helped form our “relationship.” But mostly, I just bang away, writing to persuade others to my point of view, as eloquently and compellingly as possible.
I frequently encourage friends to write up their interesting story and send it in, but few such efforts have seemed to pay off. “Nevertheless, [I] persist….” I implore each of you to write, too. Not all of your letters will be printed, and in the beginning, very few. But if you persist, you will learn, and that percentage will change.
Today, I would guess that roughly half of mine are printed, which tells me newspapers don’t receive enough letters! But my publication rate has increased over time, and I have to admit I would have screened out most of the same letters if I were in the editor’s shoes. They were too shrill, or not interesting enough, or someone else had said it better, or any one of a dozen other weaknesses. In some cases, I was just venting, and shame on me.
A better reason for writing letters is this: By writing, you learn what you think. You listen to yourself and learn from yourself. You clarify your own thoughts. You might even do a bit of research to back up your arguments, and you learn from that. But you learn, and that’s the point. It’s a valid point followed by many treatment professionals in rehabilitation. By reciting your story, you are forced to listen to yourself, and learn from yourself. You are the best expert on you, what you truly believe, and what motivates or moves you.
Whether or not you plan to submit your letter, try to follow the common word limits for letters to the editor (generally a maximum of 250 words) for they force you to develop your thoughts with an economy of words, and you may find you can omit some minor points. (Remember the lawyers’ old adage, “If I’d had more time, I’d have written a shorter brief.”) Make it punchy, strong, compelling. If necessary, draw up an outline, which will also help you organize and prioritize your points. Conclude with a strong statement.
Sometimes, you may write down your thoughts solely to vent, knowing you’ll never submit the letter. Perhaps you’ll do this over and over on the same topic, as a way of healing or getting past an issue. That’s OK, too, and along the way, you’re becoming a sharper, better writer, honing your skill. Several times, I have written out my thoughts, knowing or doubting I would ever submit them, but needing to clarify things in my own mind, or at times, unburden myself.
Do write, and do persist. I’ll make this offer to readers of this piece: Send me your proposed letter, and I will try to read it from an editor’s point of view and lend any help I can to increase your chances of getting it published.
Welcome to the writers’ club. Anybody can join.
Mary’s latest published letter discusses the Brett Kavanaugh nomination. Read it here.
Mary McLeod, a Humanists of Minnesota member, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.