“I don’t have any money, but I want to advocate for an issue. What can I do to help?” In local elections, one of the best ways to advocate for an issue is by writing a letter to the local herald, tribune, or gazette. The best part is that it’s free. The second best part is that it’s not anywhere near as hard as you think. A few things to keep in mind:
- The goal is to persuade, gently.
- Letters with anecdotes/stories stick longer in readers’ minds.
- Write like you speak; keep it natural.
- Follow directions.
You can google up any number of formulas for these snappy, 250-word persuasive beasts. But I prefer to think of letters as comprised of four “building blocks” that can be used somewhat interchangeably.
THE HOOK. What’s your reason for writing? Why is this letter relevant to readers at this exact moment? Maybe there’s an election coming up, or you’re responding to an article printed earlier this week. The hook is the first line of your article and it lays out why you’re writing. Examples:
- “Don’t close the casket and bury local newspapers yet!”
- “We should double the number of bike lanes.”
- “Considering X, we should do Y.” (Considering that we haven’t had a new major park in 37 years, we should focus on outdoor infrastructure to draw Montana kids back to Billings.)
- “I am a member of the organic gardening association and a strange thing happened when tried to open a community plot down the street.”
- “I wholeheartedly support teachers/public safety/diversity/downtown revitalization.”
THE WHY. Why does this matter? The more concrete, sensory, and hyper-specific, the better. In drafts I often start a paragraph with the phrase, “This matters because…” and list every possible reason; you can pare this down before submitting. This LTE in support of local measures to mitigate homelessness does a stellar job of providing sensory details that help us connect with the issue:
- “Being homeless means sleeping in a car, surfing couches or walking the streets all night. It means being dirty and having only what you can carry. These people have to tolerate hot, wet and cold weather. Some are mentally ill and desperately need help. Others are addicted and use cheap liquor to stave off withdrawal. Others have visible handicaps. Some lost their job and cannot find another in time for the rent. Women lose their children because they do not have the means to care for them.”
THE WRITER. Who are you? Identify yourself and your connection to this issue. Why are you so passionate? Memorable letters often include stories from the writers’ life. Examples:
- “I am a 76-year-old married, Caucasian, political independent and serious Christian.”
- “As a young person and first-time voter…”
- “I’ve taught classrooms, worked at nonprofits, and written grants.”
THE ASK. End your letter with a call to action. What do you want the reader to do? Vote? Write their own letter? Attend the next council meeting? Read more articles? Think differently? Whatever it is, ASK. Examples from the letters linked above include:
- “I urge the public to volunteer at these centers or donate money to help.”
- “We need every woman and person of color reading this to either run themselves, or support a campaign.”
- “Please, someone help me understand these seeming contradictions.”
- “Vote for X candidate on Y date.”
- If you’re responding a recent article, DON’T WAIT. Relevancy is key.
- Be specific. You may support a candidate for all kinds of reasons, but LTEs are most effective when you pick one or two issues (at the most). Instead of, “so-and-so has strong positions on lots of issues young families care about,” try, “so-and-so will fight for a family-friendly city with policies in support of green space, public parks, and sustainable development.”
- Pay attention to tone. No swearing, no name-calling. Be direct and honest, but polite.
- Follow the publication’s rules. If you’re limited to 250 words, stick within that limit. Short, concise letters convey confidence.
- Have fun. Be yourself. Write the letter only YOU can write.