Letter Writing Guide

Letters to the Editor

The letters to the editor section of your local paper is an ideal forum for sharing your opinion and story with the local community. In addition, letters to the editor are one of the most read parts of a paper - especially by politicians. LTEs show that an issue is of concern to the community and are excellent tools for education.

Below are a few guidelines for getting your letter to the editor printed:

1. Think Local — Begin your letter by tying yourself to the local community by expressing a direct connection with the area and issue. Such as: “As a twenty year resident of South Lake Tahoe and an avid user of our area forests…” A letter that reflects on a local issue is far more likely to get published than one on more general subject matter.

2. Be Timely — Submit your letter as soon after an event as possible. A letter is far more likely to get published if it is responding to a fresh news item rather than one that occurred some time ago. Newspapers often like to print letters that are in response to a recent news article in their paper.

3. Keep it brief — Most papers will not print letters that are more than 250 words, or two to three paragraphs in length. The shorter the letter, the better chance it will be published. Be concise and keep your letter short and to the point. Stick to one subject and be sure to check your grammar. After you have written your letter, read it out loud and listen to it. Have you made your point clear? Can you shorten your letter and still get your point across?

4. What do you want? — If there is something that you would like to see done be sure to explain what that is. Newspapers are looking for engaged readers who put forth strong opinions and have something to suggest and are not just responding to an issue or event. Such as: "I am adamantly opposed to the continued degradation of our water resources by projects such as the…..”

5. Support your argument — If you can briefly highlight or cite current proposals or recently published scientific research that supports your point of view, do so. A well informed reader is exactly what a newspaper is looking for. For example: “Recent science confirms that post-fire logging actually increases fire risk……"

6. What are you responding to? — Many of the largest newspapers in particular are not likely to print letters that are submitted on issues unrelated to a recently published article, opinion piece, or letter from that newspaper. If your letter is in response to a specific article, editorial, or op-ed piece, mention that in the first sentence of your letter to ensure that the paper is aware of it and also to help you stay on point. Refer specifically to the article by using the name of the article and date, such as: “The story ‘Forest Service plans to log sensitive habitat’ published on August 28, 2008, makes it clear that the priorities of our forest managers are misplaced.…”

7. Major message first — Your letter should carry its most important message in the first paragraph. Do not delay in letting the newspaper and the reader know what your major point it. You can follow up on your major point with supporting information and comments but it is essential to get on point as quickly as possible in order to engage the reader.

8. Limit your points — Be sure to stay on one subject and avoid writing any superfluous sentences that divert the reader from you major points. Letters to the editor are meant to be short and concise and as long as you stay focused on a few precise points the newspaper is likely to find your letter engaging and worth publishing.

9. Finish strong — Make an effort to finish your letter with a clear statement that engages people. When you close your letter you want to be assertive and wrap up your letter and your major point in a decisive manner. Such as: "The Forest Service must stop its assault on our public lands and begin managing out public lands in a manner befitting their importance.”

10. Include your contact information — Most newspapers will not publish your letter unless you include your full name, address and daytime telephone number. Editors like to call to confirm that the letter was actually written by the person whose name appears on the letter.

Even if your letter does not get published, it can still help by demonstrating readers’ interest in a given topic and encouraging editors to publish similar letters. Don't be disappointed if your letter does not get printed. Newspapers get many letters every day and can't print all of them. Most papers won't print the same writers over and over again. Therefore, if you have had a letter published recently, try to get a friend or co-worker to sign the next one.

If you submit an LTE to your local newspaper, please email Sierra Forest Legacy a copy of it. We track all published letters pertaining to issues that are important to Sierra Nevada forests and communities to assist in our outreach efforts. Email your letter to .

Sample Original Letter

Dear Editor:

The recent tragedies in South Lake Tahoe and Southern California highlight the urgent need for programs and funding that protect our communities and the areas that surround them from fire. Our priority has to be these forest communities - that’s where the people live and that’s where the money should go. We cannot afford to burn it away in non-populated, remote areas or to spend the majority of it logging old growth trees that are a world away from where the people live.

I support efforts to fund fuels reduction programs in and around our forest communities while keeping the largest most fire resistant trees residing in the backcountry standing. It is time for the Forest Service to stop charging that they need to cut these large, ecologically important trees in order to pay for the brush and tree removal in our at-risk communities. We need leadership in Congress to allocate the funding for these fuels reduction efforts immediately surrounding communities. Let’s use common sense to invest in and protect our communities.

John Smith
123 Sierra Street
Mountainville, CA 95555
(555) 555-1212

Sample Response Letter

Dear Editor:

In your September 15th article “Sierra Nevada Forests at Risk” you reported that environmentalists were largely responsible for keeping important fuels reduction activities form taking place. I take issue with this convenient scapegoating of a movement that has been in the lead in the past decade at moving our forest managers from their ensconced, antiquated ideas of how to effectively reduce the fire risk.

Despite the obvious need to reduce the small brush and fuels within a quarter mile of communities, the Forest Service continues to spend its time and resources trying to target the largest trees in the remote areas of the forest. These are the very trees that are the most fire resistant and resilient yet the Forest Service cannot remove itself from its addiction to logging big trees. The science has passed the Forest Service by and so has public opinion. Instead of stacking up environmentalists as the problem and buying into the propaganda of the logging interests in the government, perhaps you should have spent the time researching what organizations have taken the lead at ensuring that public funds are spent at removing hazardous fuels in and around communities. We need to address the problem in order to save lives and property, not continue to point fingers at the very people who looking out for the health of our communities and forests.

John Smith
123 Sierra Street
Mountainville, CA 95555
(555) 555-1212


An op-ed is a column or guest essay published in the opinion section of a newspaper (Opposite the Editorial page). Most are between 500-750 words, and most outlets will take submissions by fax, e-mail or mail. Op-eds are longer than letters to the editor, and there is more competition for space. You may want to call your local newspaper for length requirements.

An op-ed gives readers a chance to offer their informed opinion on a recent piece of news, which draws from their personal insight and expertise. Try to write on a controversial issue being covered at that time. If you can use a professional title that suggests authority, do so. If you work for an organization, get permission to sign the op-ed as a representative of that organization.

Feel free to send it to papers far from where you live, but avoid sending it to two newspapers in the same "market." You can easily submit the same piece to five or ten local dailies in different regions - greatly increasing your chances of being published. Assure the op-ed editor in your cover letter that the piece has not been submitted to any other paper in their market. If, on the other hand, you sent it to only one paper, let that paper know you are offering them an exclusive. The person in charge of the op-ed page looks for clarity, brevity, and newsworthiness, as well as controversy. To better learn what type of writing the paper is looking for read some of the pieces they’ve published in the past.

Below are a few guidelines for getting your op-ed published:

1. Be timely — Editors are looking for op-eds which cause readers to take notice and spend time talking to their friends and co-workers about. They are looking for an unusual or provocative opinion on a current issue, a call-to-arms on a neglected topic, intelligence and wit, or an expert opinion on an issue by a well-known name or organization. Your analysis of a significant news story should run one to three days behind the story’s publication, or some papers only ask that you write on a hotly-debated piece of recent news. A fresh angle on an older news story also has a good chance of being published. Writing on the anniversary of significant event, or on pending state and federal legislation are also good hooks.

2. Present strong arguments — Mention your opponents' claims and dismantle them with common sense, past history, contradicting facts, moral outrage - whatever is needed. An op-ed is likely to be published if the opinion is fresh and striking, rather than just adding to a chorus of similar viewpoints.

3. Know your audience — Know who it is that you are trying to reach or persuade with your piece and tailor your writing to that audience. In writing op-eds, avoid excessive rhetoric. State the subject under controversy clearly. You are usually trying to persuade a middle-of-the-road readership. If you rely on facts not commonly found in mainstream media, cite your sources. Give readers the minimum background they need to understand your case.

4. Have a goal — Determine your goal and audience. Figure out what you want to say and who can say it. Be able to summarize your point in a single, clear sentence. Then, determine which news outlet can best deliver your op-ed to your targeted audience. Try to think of a catchy title. If you don't, the paper will be more likely to run its own - which may not emphasize your central message. (Even if you do write your own headline, don't be surprised if it appears under a different one.)

5. Make your points compelling — The first sentence should grab the reader's attention, and everything that follows should keep it. Illustrate your case with vivid examples and memorable facts. Defend it with a few strong arguments. Be short and specific. Use a lively, active voice. Your op-ed should be provocative, with one solid, striking conclusion and compelling evidence to support it. Write as if you are speaking in conversation to a friend, however, be sure to avoid jargon, acronyms, statistics, and numbers.

6. Be brief — Aim for a first draft of about 1,000 words. Go over what you've written. Eliminate unnecessary words, repetitious or stray ideas. Trim excess words, not ideas. Give the op-ed to a colleague and ask for suggestions and comments. Include those that make sense and edit it down to 750 words. Restate your key argument at the end.

7. Submit the piece — E-mail and/or fax are the cheapest and fastest methods. Include a short cover letter with your name and title, affiliation, address, e-mail, and day and evening phone numbers.

8. Follow-up — Once it's been sent, don't call the newspaper or magazine repeatedly. If they're going to publish your piece, they'll call you. Be ready to make updates and revisions just before publication, especially if several weeks have passed since you submitted it.

9. Keep trying — If your op-ed is rejected, don't be discouraged. Newspapers and magazines receive a huge volume of submissions, all competing for space on the page. Send your op-ed to another news outlet. Keep writing and submitting pieces. Often, it is just a matter of your op-ed being at the right place at the right time. Be prepared to shorten and re-submit your article as a letter to the editor in case it does not get accepted as an op-ed.

10. Use your success — If your piece does get published and you represent an organization send copies to funders, board members, reporters, elected officials, colleagues and other allies. Sending a copy of the op-ed to an elected official is an effective way to ensure that your message reaches the desk of an important policy maker and keeps your message as a topic of discussion.

Op-ed Sample

Forests don’t pose the only wildfire threat

This is in response to the Guest View column by Tim Feller of Sierra Pacific Industries ("Who will thin our forests to prevent fires?") that ran in the Tribune on Nov. 6.

Some important points were made, but the column failed to recognize the bigger picture. We all agree that some thinning of flammable brush and small trees is necessary to protect Sierra homes and communities. But Feller failed to point out one of the major issues that contributed to the devastation of the Angora fire: the lack of defensible space around many homes throughout the hardest-hit area.

Even as people talk about reducing the risk of catastrophic fire to lives and property, many fail to talk about the things that homeowners can do to protect their property well before any thinning project takes place.

It also is important to point out that the real problem in the woods is not large fire-resistant trees, but highly flammable ground fuels, brush and small-diameter trees - much of it produced by decades of logging and through fire suppression. Streamlining reviews of thinning projects, as suggested in the article, is a dangerous proposition and is viable only if land managers consider all the alternatives and the environmental consequences of the proposed actions.

My fear is that by "streamlining" projects, we will fail to complete the important environmental review process regarding impacts on our soil and water.

I will agree with Feller that we need to move our forests in a direction that would provide trees of all ages and sizes. But what he failed to mention are the thousands upon thousands of even-aged mono-crop Sierra Pacific Industries plantations that plague the Sierra Nevada. Those plantations are an extreme fire danger to Sierra Nevada communities for at least 40 years, as they provide an opportunity for fire to rip through them with nothing to stop it.

Trees removed in thinning projects can provide jobs and wood products, as evidenced in the White Mountains Stewardship Contract in Arizona and other places. The forestry industry has the tools, skills, loggers and mills to help thin our forests, but their approach is rooted in old and outdated practices that got us in this mess to begin with. Our future does not lie in unsustainable large-scale logging. We need timber people and their skills, but we need to help them adapt their practices for today's forests. Blaming the Forest Service, other agencies or environmental protections overlooks the bottom-line problems facing mill closures, primarily mechanized technology and workers-comp costs.

What we really need is funding for important fuels reduction projects around communities, and the timber industry can help do that — in a way that benefits everybody in the Sierra, not just SPI.

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