Writing Letters to the Editor and Op-Eds

Writing letters to the editor (LTEs)  can be an effective tool to both get your message out there and to engage members. Some may be skeptical of the value of the LTE in the digital age. However, letters to the editor printed online often show up in the newsfeeds of legislative staff, employer PR departments, and others who work for decision-makers and influencers assigned to track media coverage of particular issues. They may be less effective in swaying the public, but they can generate some impact on those who have the power to facilitate the change you seek.

General tips:

  • Keep it short – Keep the letter to no more than 200-250 total words which is about five short sentences.
  • Make it timely – If you are responding to a specific article, the sooner you submit your LTE the better. Mention to article headline and date in an early sentence. 
  • Connect yourself to the news item you are writing about. For example, “As a social worker for ___ years I’ve seen firsthand….”
  • Avoid using your work title – Many employers have public relations and legal policies that preclude workers from speaking on behalf of the employer. Including your title may create the perception that you are speaking on behalf of your employer.
  • Don’t be overly negative – most newspapers will not print harsh attacks.
  • Connect your point to the public interest. Go beyond your own interest in the issue to connect to something that matters to everyone. For example the quality of our schools or creating jobs and helping the local economy.
  • Avoid union jargon like union busting, collective bargaining, or other terms the average person will not understand.
  • Wrap up by asking for a specific action. “The Governor should support retirement security” or “State Rep X should vote against House Bill #000.” 
  • Show the letter to family and friends to get feedback.
  • Submit your letter and then call to follow-up. Most newspapers accept LTEs through webforms or specific email addresses. Newspapers require writers to provide their first and last names, home address, and phone number. Only your name and city will be published. Editors usually call to confirm that you wrote the letter.

FOR WORKERS SUBJECT TO HATCH – Avoid LTEs concerning partisan politics, such as endorsements of particular candidates. 

  • Share a copy of your LTE with us by emailing it to us at local668@seiu668.org
  • Engage your members in a letter-writing activity at your next Shop meeting.

Writing Op-Eds

Op-ed is an abbreviation for “opposite the editorial page” – it is not an editorial. Editorials by definition are opinion pieces written by the editorial board of the newspapers. Op-eds are opinion pieces written by outside authors.

Opinion Page Editors may choose to publish op-eds that express a different opinion than expressed in its editorials to balance their coverage of an issue. Sometimes op-eds are selected for their unique response or fresh perspective on a recent event or news story. 

Simply put, op-eds express the opinion of the author on a particular issue and can offer an excellent opportunity for you to advance your messages. Placing an op-ed is an art. There’s no set process, but the best op-eds have a light touch from outside help. Work with your communication desk to help identify the writer and pitch the piece. The following are some tips for writing and submitting an op-ed that will increase your chances of getting published.

Follow the rules. All newspapers have guidelines for op-ed submissions that generally include a maximum word count, exclusivity rules, and instructions for how to submit the piece. Exclusivity rules are particularly important to follow.  If it is not clear on the Web site, contact the editor directly to determine the rules established by the particular outlet that you are targeting.

It’s important to adhere to an outlet’s guidelines because failing to do so will likely cause your submission to be rejected, no matter how well-written it is. We recommend finding out the guidelines before you even begin to write. Many newspapers will have this information on their Web sites. If not, call the op-ed editor and ask about the guidelines. While you have him or her on the phone, introduce yourself, share your idea for an op-ed and ask if it would be a good fit for the paper.

The write stuff. New York Times op-ed editor David Shipley wrote an article about how The Times selects op-eds. He looks for “timeliness, ingenuity, strength of argument, freshness of opinion, clear writing and newsworthiness.” When writing your op-ed, keep the following in mind:

Focus. Don’t try to do too much. It’s better to develop and support one argument thoroughly, with plenty of detail, than to try to cover several more generally. By trying to say everything, you may end up saying nothing.

Support. Your opinion needs to be supported by hard facts and, if possible, powerful statistics. This will give your op-ed weight and enable it to stand up to criticism. Be careful, though, that you do not overload your op-ed with numbers. Three to four key facts or statistics are ideal; more would be overkill.

Illustrate. A well-chosen personal story or real-life example will give life to your argument, and demonstrate the human consequences of a failing indigent defense system.

Speak plainly. You may be tempted to put jargon into your op-ed. Resist the temptation! Write as if you were talking to your neighbor, your mom or your dentist. For a clear argument, use everyday language.

Edit, edit, edit. Make sure that your final op-ed does not contain grammar or spelling errors. Ask someone else to read it for clarity.

Submit and follow-up. The person who wrote the op-ed should submit it via the method recommended by the paper, typically via email or online submission form. Submit your op-ed, following the newspaper’s instructions for doing so. If it is accepted, work with the newspaper to edit the piece if needed.

If you haven’t heard anything after several days, the submitter should follow-up with the op-ed editor to see if the piece that you submitted is still under consideration, ask if there are any revisions that you could make to increase its chances of being published.

If the piece is rejected, ask the op-ed editor how you could improve a future op-ed. Newspapers sometimes commission op-eds, so even if this op-ed wasn’t published, developing a relationship with the editor can increase your future chances of being published. Also, consider submitting the piece to another local newspaper.

Save a copy once it is printed. You should distribute copies of the op-ed to our union’s communications department at local668@seiu668.org, and to any interested individuals – allied organizations working with you, those organizations with which you would like to work, colleagues in other states, funders, etc. The life of an op-ed is not over once it appears in a newspaper.

Op-ed Checklist

Before you submit an op-ed, check to make sure:

  • You’re under the newspaper’s word limit (usually 600-750 words)
  • You have one main argument, not multiple arguments.
  • A reader will understand your main point after reading the first paragraph.
  • You have included a few carefully chosen facts, statistics, and stories.
  • You have not used any jargon or acronyms.
  • Your op-ed can be understood by an average adult, like your neighbor or your dentist.
  • Your op-ed contains no spelling or grammatical errors.
  • At the end of your op-ed, you have included one to two sentences describing who the author is and highlighting what makes him/her a credible writer on this particular issue.

 


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