Writing Letters to the Editor: A Great Exercise for Any Writer

Written by A Guest Author

by Ellen Levitt  

Savvy, enterprising writers look for publishing opportunities all over the place, and there are always opportunities for writing letters to editors. While it’s rare to receive monetary payment for this sort of writing, there are many reasons to undertake this exercise.

Newspapers, magazines, journals — either online or in-print — offer many placements for letter writing. Just months after my college graduation, one of my letters was printed in the venerable New York Daily News. They have published many more of my letters, as have the New York Times, Newsday, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and a few local publications. Writing letters (and seeing them published) is a very good avenue for me to express opinions on timely and evergreen topics, either serious or light-hearted. Each year thousands of people, most not professional writers but others who are (and even celebrities), have their letters to the editor read by John and Jane Q. Public.

If you experience Writer’s Block, writing a letter to the editor is a good way to push past it. It’s similar to working on a writing prompt. It helps if you tackle a subject or issue about which you’re passionate, or at least have a strong opinion. Are you unhappy about something going in the news? Is your favorite sports team making a bad move? Are critics panning the movie you dearly enjoyed? Is a certain government policy a terrible decision? Find your topic, and address it.

Your letter might also be a response to a piece that ran in a particular publication or on a website. But don’t just write a letter that says “I agree” or “I disagree”: have credible reasons for your stance, and take it a step further by offering examples or a kind of sidebar to the original article or topic.

Before writing a letter, figure out to whom you will send it. Read the letters section of a few major newspapers and magazines. You want to compose and edit your letter so that it is a good fit for a particular audience, and you want to express your opinion strongly. If most of the letters on a particular website or publication are succinct, then tailor your letter that way as well. If most of the letters are from professionals in a particular field, then you should belong to that cohort.You want to reach the readers.

Writing letters that are more likely to be selected for a particular publication also strengthens your skills in proofreading, editing, and even marketing your output. Think about how to craft your letter so that it is tighter, stronger, incisive. Read it aloud. Not only does this help you compose a better letter, it helps you write better short stories, or articles, or essays, or haiku.

Remember that you are writing for a more or less defined audience, and the editors of their letter sections know what their readers want. If you take the attitude that “My letter should be printed, even if it’s different from most of the others they publish,” then your work is more than likely to be passed over. Often it’s not the opinion expressed that the editors don’t like, but the style, the length, the overall shape of the letter. Just as the letters editor is a gatekeeper of sorts, so is the editor to whom you send your articles or stories, or the editor or agent to whom you direct your manuscript..

And just because you’ve written a letter and pushed Send, doesn’t mean that it will be published. That can be disappointing; but it’s the kind of disappointment that nearly every writer will face at some point (or points) in their careers. Writers should develop a thick skin to guard against rejection, because it’s inevitable. Take rejection in your stride, and get back to work. 

If your letter is published, be prepared for people to praise it or pan it. When your letter runs in a well- known newspaper or magazine, you’re bound to find someone you know who noticed it.

This can be an ego boost, or it can make you cringe; but your name is out there with a de facto byline. Certainly this is helpful for nonfiction writers, but fiction writers and poets can also benefit from a bit of name recognition. These days many writers post these letters on their social media accounts, for added exposure.

It’s possible for a letter writer to turn a published letter (or even an unpublished letter) into a lengthier written piece, a short story, or perhaps even the inspiration for a book. If you do so, you might place the actual letter at the start of the project, and refer back to it intermittently. The letter (or letters) can be turned into poems; into catalysts for short stories; expanded into nonfiction articles; perhaps even built into a book, be it a novel or a nonfiction work. If you go this rather ambitious route, it might help to print out the letter (or clip it out of the newspaper or magazine) and place it in the center of your table or on a bulletin board. Then write notes in response, or ideas for chapters, or sketches of characters whom you build around this letter.

Pop singer Kesha sang “Letters to the Editor,” and Thievery Corporation performed “Letter to the Editor.” Perhaps your letter can be turned into a hit song! There are nonfiction anthologies that collect letters to the editor of particular newspapers. Letters to the editor are found in biographical works. Search “Letters to the Editor” and you’ll find a handful of book titles. (If you write a book like that, change up the name a bit. Differentiate.)

Your letter to the editor might influence many people; it could inspire laughs. It can be the start of a much bigger project, or stand as a one-time spark of creativity.


Bio: Ellen Levitt is a writer and teacher, and a lifelong resident of Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn, The Lost Synagogues of the Bronx and Queens, and The Lost Synagogues of Manhattan (www.avotaynu.com) and Walking Manhattan (www.wildernesspress.com) . She has also written many freelance articles and essays for online and in-print publications.

 

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