The Power of Letters to the Editor*
by William West
Australian journalist William West, former Letters Editor, writes about his
experience as he encourages the readers to use their untapped potency to become a
national influence. He tells the story of how letters to the editor once influenced
the Australian legislators.
What follows may shock you. Your life may never be the same. If you are the
squeamish type, better not read on...
Start off a letter to a newspaper like that and you can be pretty sure of getting
it published. Well, at least you will be half way there: you will have captured the
letters editor's attention, and if you can do that, you will probably capture a
reader's attention as well.
If You Are Sane, Your Chances Are High
My qualification for giving such advice is that I have had the misfortune over
the years to have serve several stints as an acting letters editor on a national daily
newspaper. I say "misfortune" because the first thing you realize as a letters editor
is that a large proportion of letter writers are, as one of my colleagues used to
put it, "a sandwich short of a lunch."
Consider the fellow who wrote, "James Henry has been trying to murder me and
I demand an apology." I couldn't put a percentage on it, but many letter writers are
like that. One even used to send letters from a mental hospital. So if you have been
concerned about the competition for getting something published, think again. If you
are reasonably sane, your chances are high.
Why write to a newspaper in the first place? Who reads letters columns anyway?
An awful lot of people, it would seem, from all sectors of the society. Not being
an avid consumer of other people's views myself, I have been surprised over the years
to find how many other people are. Confess to a group of people at a party that you
are editing a letters column and you're bound to see at least one set of eyes light
It seems after the really important sections of the newspaper have been
read--the comics and the sports section--many, many people turn straight to the
letters page. Thousands do it every morning to be stimulated or amused or just to
have their prejudices confirmed. Others seem to do it because they want to be outraged
by other people's views. Anyway, for whatever reason, many people read letters
columns, including the so-called "opinion makers."
A waste of time? What if you should decide to write a letter and you fail to
have it published? Has your time been wasted? The answer to this question is very
definitely No. The basic point here is that letters editors normally try to publish
letters on subjects that readers seem to be interested in and the only way they have
of determining that is the volume of mail on a particular subject. If you get 10 letters
on a particular issue then you might be inclined to publish two. If you get 100, you
would be inclined to publish 30 or more. So the 70 who did not get published at least
ensured that other letters expressing their point of view got a run.
A Short Story
On this point, I always remember the issue of the attempted closure of the ABC's
FM radio station. Nobody took any notice of the Government's plans until people
started writing letters to the editor. The letters editor realized it was an issue
that had people stirred up, so he mentioned it to the editor who in turn assigned
a journalist to write some stories. Soon after, the matter was brought up in Parliament
and the Government was put on the defensive. More letters were published. More stories
followed and eventually the Government was forced to back off. The FM station was
So-and-So is Always Getting Published
Silent influence. Letter writers exercise a power over public affairs far in
excess of what you would expect from their numbers. When you consider that several
hundred thousand people will read a newspaper, and that on average 100 to 200 write
response, and that 20 or 30 of those get published, it is extraordinary that more
people don't take the trouble to write.
Anyone considering taking up the pen should be prepared to work on a system
of percentages. He should expect to average anywhere between one success in three,
to one in ten. You sometimes hear people complain that so-and-so is always getting
his letters published and why should that be so? What they don't realize is that
so-and-so writes about 20 letters a week. Some regulars will even send in 10 versions
of the same letter.
I don't recommend that anyone go that far, of course. These people tend to wear
out their welcome very quickly. But someone who wants to become a regular letter writer
should be prepared to take a light-hearted approach to the thing--you win some and
you lose some. As time passes, and contributors become more accomplished, they will
find that they are winning more than they are losing.
Advice to the Letter-Lorn
The following are some points too keep in mind when writing letters to editors:
--Writers in general are not born; they are made. Practice is the most important
thing. If you are going to write letters, you should first read some to see how those
who are successful go about the thing. Pick out one or two which impress you and re-read
them a couple of times. It sometimes helps to read them aloud to pick up what is
sometimes referred to as the "voice" of the writer. Everyone has his own writing voice,
just as he has his own character, but all writers can improve their skills by studying
good writing techniques.
--Always get straight to the point. You have to engage the reader in your first
sentence. Don't waffle or write like a student writing an essay, who knows that his
reader has to persevere to the bitter end. Newspapers are read in a hurry by people
who want to be informed or entertained. That is the challenge.
--Don't assume that the reader has any knowledge of what you are writing about.
Make it clear from the outset what the subject is that you are addressing, and if
you are reacting to a particular story or letter, cite the publication and the date
very close to the beginning.
--Unless you are an absolute fount of knowledge on a particular subject and
can keep a reader interested despite his own inclinations, don't try to say too much.
It is best to stick to one or two central points. The old saying, "brevity is the
soul of wit," has more than a grain of truth in it. Never say in 100 words what you
can say in 10.
--If you think you have written a good letter and it does not get published,
wait a few months and send it again. You may just have struck a day when the competition
was pretty tough--and letters editors tend to have short memories anyway.
--Finally, remember that you are not restricted to writing a letter to the
editor. You can write directly to the journalist who wrote a particular article.
Sometimes you might be able to alert him to an alternative point of view. He might
even do a follow-up. On those extremely rare occasions when a journalist has been
inaccurate or biased you can take him to task and remind him that there are readers
who are taking notice. Very few people take the trouble to do this, so when it does
happen, it has a real impact.
* Taken from "Becoming a National Influence" in Perspective, no. 3, 1991.
Subheadings were added as reading guides.