Letters to editors… with social media these days, who cares?

Katie Sutton, NLC Montana

They say that “no one reads newspapers anymore,” rendering articles and their platform useless in this day and age, but I disagree. When asked my favorite social media platform, I cheekishly responded “letters to editors.” Not knowing when I said it, how true that statement actually was.

Letters to the Editor — or LTEs — appear in opinion sections of newspapers, near political cartoons that didn’t prove entertaining until I was in my 20’s. Newspapers are (suppose to be) unbiased in their report of news, and opinion sections are where we learn how news affects our communities, how it impacts us, our friends, and our neighbors. I love that it isn’t perfect, it doesn’t need to be. Editors encourage counter arguments, providing opportunities to clarify issues, or tell your truth. It’s a place for your voice to be heard.

In the age of technology, with many outlets to tell our stories, our opinions, or raise our voices; why convince editors to publish them?

Ask where anyone gets their information: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram… Does anyone even read newspapers anymore? Rural America does. And with online presences for papers, I would argue that you and just about everyone else does, too. Papers reach demographics that friends lists cannot; even if they could, algorithms won’t let them. Like seniors impacted by shady bank loans. Families experiencing poverty that may not know resources exist beyond payday loan sharks or slimy check-cashing storefronts. They reach people I haven’t met yet, that have fallen into debt-traps and need a hand to pull them from deep dark poverty pits.

Decision makers find them. Let me tell you, they listen when you mention them, even call to talk about the issues. In that way, you hold policy makers accountable; your voice is heard by those holding the power to change your circumstances. Build relationships with people in power by thanking them publicly. Public thanks to members of Congress that jeer others for not following suit; those are my favorite.

We post all the time. We aren’t afraid to share our voices, but speaking in a bubble isn’t effective. Take a look at a recent post: Is it pertaining to something you care about? Did it engage readers or ask them to make changes or do something? Is it informative to a larger audience? Around 200 words (or less)? Could you gut it? … Smells like an LTE on the wrong platform.

Submitting LTEs are about as much work as social media posts. Like Twitter, newspapers have word counts — typically 200 to 250 words. Gutting letters might be my favorite, albeit most stressful part. I have drafted, or helped others draft over 40 LTEs and op-eds (long-winded LTEs around 750 words, which are harder to get published and more informational than opinionated). You already have skills to cut down your thoughts, but I’ll share some tricks, with examples from gutting this article (an informative story explaining your opinions with room to include your voice):

  • Don’t write up to your word count; write and then trim down.
  • “;” what a sexy punctuation. You have limited space and lots to say. It’s short enough that readers will follow your train of thought. Connect similar sentences using a semicolon.
  • Delete “the”s and additional descriptive words (try to also keep these out of emails). Make clear and concise points; quick reads are best.
     — Search for common words using ‘Control f,’ delete as many as possible.
     — Example (28 down to 13 words):
    Longer: Editors publish counter arguments to prior published opinions, so there are opportunities to clarify an issue, or tell your rendition of what you believe to be the truth.
    Shorter: Editors publish counter arguments, providing opportunities to clarify issues, or tell your truth.
  • Change long phrases like “as well as” to “and”
  • Initialisms and acronyms are your friends, use them (initialisms are initials said individually ‘LTE’ and acronyms create words ‘MADD’ Mothers Against Drunk Driving).
  • Pluralise things instead of adding ‘a’, ‘an’, or ‘the’: A LTE is, versus LTE’s are
  • Remove “like”s
  • Can you reword it shorter? ‘The paper reaches a demographic that your friends list cannot, and even if they could, the algorithms wouldn’t let you.’ To ‘Papers reach demographics your friends list cannot; even if they could, algorithms won’t let them.’ (20 down to 15 words)
  • Starting sentences with numbers? Spell them out “Eighty-eight” versus “88”, it’s shorter than: “recently 88…”
  • Read it again, you will find more things to remove.

Newspaper sites have forms for LTEs or ‘contact us’ pages with space for letters. Editor emails are also listed if you would rather submit directly to their inbox. Include your name, address, and phone number. They won’t publish your contact information; your address is merely used to vet letters based on their local readership, if they have space they consider letters from farther away. Some editors call or email before publishing to ensure that they have permission to publish your work.

Check back in 3–10 days. Hopefully your letter was included in their paper! Plus, you may even get an award like the ‘Golden Pen’ award I received for a piece I submitted to my local paper earlier this year.

Remember to share your letter with policy makers to ensure they saw it (you can find contact emails online). Then post to social media. In many papers, you can submit one letter each month, and you can reach out to multiple newspapers in your area or state. Being published helps you to build your personal brand, adds professionalism to your voice, and I would argue, makes your thoughts worth reading in a time of quick choices and skimming news feeds.

Katie Sutton, director of the non-profit Montana Organizing Project and a NLC-Montana Alumni. Personally works to help inspire others to engage in politics, raise their voice, put pressure on policy makers and change their circumstances. While professionally protecting ordinary people like us from predatory financial products, shady debt-collectors, and abusive business practices. Reach out to her at OrganizingMT@gmail.com.