Tips for Libertarian Activists

Letters to the Editor

Last updated 1996-01-23 by Tom Isenberg

Top Ten Keys to Successful Letters-to-the-Editor

by Vernon Imrich

  1. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE! -- This is by far the most important thing. You have to know what kinds of thing that particular publication thinks is important. This means that you have to read that paper's editorials -- a lot. (If you don't read left-wing or other opponent papers, I suggest you start. Fighting ideological battles requires lots of enemy intelligence, besides, you get soft and coddled reading only the stuff you agree with all the time.)

    Examples: My "profiles" of local papers

    The Boston Globe -- leftwing, but a major paper, likes to think it is not "censorsing" opposing views, wants "real" feedback, limited space (see below).

    The Tech -- MIT's blandest of the bland paper. They are just happy to know someone reads them. Spit on a piece of paper and they'll print it. Good place to start.

    The Thistle -- MIT's left-wing, admittedly biased rag. Have to think like a liberal, and pick your issues (see below).

  2. REACT TO THEIR PUBLICATION -- Papers want to see that they are generating debate, that people are excited about them, and most of all, that you are reading them. Quote their text, and always cite their articles or editorials as starting points.

  3. BE DIRECT -- Papers want clarity. If you disagree, everyone had better know you disagree in the first sentence. No hemming and hawing, whining, or complaing. Tell them: you disagree, here's why, end of story.

  4. NO LONGER THAN IS NECESSARY -- For most "real world" publications this means no more than a paragraph or two. Do this exercise: try typing out a few paragraphs from an editorial or column and see how much shorter the thing seems on your page than in the newspaper. Next do the following. Read the thing you just typed. How fast did you lose interest? Chances are if they were long winded and you disagreed you stopped before it finished. People are busy, the press knows this. Remember, these are the people who gave us "sound bites." In general I write it out, and then just strip, strip, strip it down to the barest minimum.

    For college publications these rules are different. MIT's paper frequently publishes "essay length" letters and often hosts debates in a near USENET fashion with letters answering letters. This is not the case elsewhere.

  5. PICK A NARROW TARGET -- because of 3 and 4, you simply cannot hope to cover everything in any kind of a cogent or supported fashion. Therefore, pick a small piece of the issue, target it well and hit hard. People reading their morning paper with a donut probably can't digest a treatise on the fallacies of gun control anway.

  6. DO NOT SAY ONE SINGLE THING YOU CANNOT ABSOLUTELY BACK UP! -- this is the easiest way to get killed in letter writing. You can write a Bible full of gospel truth, but if one fact is off, one tiny digression is not supported quite well enough, respondents will dismiss the 99% and take on the 1% you flubbed up. I would not use any fact for which I could not personally cite the reference (and that reference better be something credible to non-libertarians). And if you do have them ready you can really slam dunk any doubters.

    Example: I asserted that only 40% of the budget goes to defense and debt (roughly 20% for each). Someone wrote back claiming it was thirty for each, meaning 60% of the budget went to defense and debt "that mostly paid for military build up anyway." I hit him with the latest budget figures from UPI (18% military, 14% debt) and never heard back ;)

    For papers like the Globe (that don't generally print responses to other letters) this is still important. Their editors know what facts are true and what aren't. They see one thing wrong and bye-bye.

  7. DO NOT PREJUDICE YOURSELF -- Statements like "as a libertarian" should come at the end unless they are in direct response to something (e.g. in this case, an article about libertarians). You want people to read what you have to say first and then find out who you are. That way, they will read the argument and say "so that's what libertarians think" rather than saying "uh oh, another one of those libertarian nuts is ranting again" and then read the peice through colored lenses. How would you read a letter that began "As a liberal..."?

  8. BE REASONABLE -- you can be animated and assertive without sounding like a raving nut. Think about what you are saying. Write out the file and then leave it for a while. Come back to it later, or let others read it too. Control those emotions. Use them, but control them. (Note: the leave-and-come-back is a good way to check for lots of errors. Many times, your mind thinks a certain way and leaves out important things. After lunch you will notice things that don't make as much sense as they first did.)

  9. ADVANCED TOPIC: BE COLORFUL OR DIFFERENT -- Can be very difficult to do given the space restrictions and need for being direct, but can be very useful. Papers generally use only a "sampling" of opinion. This means they notice letters with catchy lines or good wit. Use vibrant verbs and adjectives. If a plan is bad, don't say "bad" say "preposterous." Other good words are "outraged," "a nightmare," or "immense," instead of "angry," "a mistake," and "big." Be careful, this can be dangerous. The lines between clever and stupid, or colorful and insane are very thin, always err on the side of rational, boring and reasonable.

  10. ADVANCED TOPIC: GETTING ON ENEMY TURF -- One of the most delightful and challenging aspects of letter writing is seeing if you can get past the mental firewalls of various publications. To do this you need a good understanding of what motivates their reasoning. When this is grasped you can use that motivation, twist it a little and have them caught in an ideological web. At the very least they will print the letter, assuming it a reasonable objection from a devoted follower.

    Example: To get my letter in the Thistle (MIT's "commie rag") on the issue of free speech (note, by knowing my audience, I knew this was one of the only issues I could use), I cited the "thirty years of fighting" for free speech on campus and how I was proud of my Berkeley days (I was there as an undergrad). From there I stated how sad I was that these "bastions of speech supporters" were now the very ones arguing for speech codes. Hypocrisy or not, people are not going to toss out sentiment or history. Also, if you know modern liberal thought, they love appeals to history as justification.

    Example: One of the letters to the Boston Globe (attached below) that was printed was on gun control. Now the Globe is one of the most overtly biased gun-grabbing outfits there is. But they do have a deference for the Supreme Court (most of its rulings have helped liberal causes in recent years) and due process. Also I noticed an editorial appeal to Madison once on a constitutional issue. Thus, my letter didn't actually ask for a change of heart on guns, but appealed to due process to try to force the hardest path on to gun control advocates (constitutional amendment). And of course, a tidy little Madison quote finished it off.

    Dear Editor:

    In "A Starting Point on Guns" (Globe Dec. 4) Mr. Ryan makes the faulty assertion that assault weapons belong only in "the military; the locked cabinets of SWAT teams; or puerile fantasy." The fact is, the 2nd Amendment was written to prevent just this kind of state monopoly on deadly force.

    ... The framers wanted military power vested in the militia which (in both the National Guard Act of 1903 and the Militia Act of 1792) "shall consist of every able-bodied male citizen." In fact, in deciding that a certain weapon was not protected by the 2nd Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court reasoned that it could not consider it "any part of the ordinary military equipment" (U.S. v. Miller Et. Al. 1939).

    Reasonable people may disagree with Jefferson and the framers, but at least try to show more respect for the Bill of Rights. Either accept what it means or follow the process to amend it. Don't degrade it with what Madison called "the gradual and silent encroachment of those in power."