Advocacy Tool

How to Write a Letter to the Editor and an Opinion Editorial

Jun 19, 2017

This advocacy tool outlines suggestions for writing letters to the editor and op-eds and getting them printed, as well as examples of published opinion pieces.

Writing a letter to the editor or an opinion editorial (op-ed) can be a useful way to share your knowledge about infant-toddler issues with the local community and policymakers. In addition, letters to the editor and op-eds are a way of reaching a much wider audience with your messages about the healthy development of infants and toddlers and how policy can positively impact babies, toddlers and their families.

State legislators and federal lawmakers regularly read the opinion pages of newspapers for clues about issues of concern in their community.

Writing opinion pieces are fairly simple and an effective way for you to Be a Voice for Little Kids in your community! This ZERO TO THREE Policy Network advocacy tool provides you with some suggestions for writing letters to the editor and op-eds and getting them printed. Download the full article for more details about these strategies and a few examples of opinion pieces that were published, so you can get a sense for how to put the strategies into practice.

Letter to the Editor Strategies

Check the newspaper’s print guidelines

Most newspapers have a web site. Check the paper’s web site or the editorial page of the print version for information about submitting a letter to the editor. Some newspapers have an online submission form which you can use.

Keep it brief and to the point

Letters should be concise – typically newspapers have a word limit of about 250 words (about 3 paragraphs). Editors are less likely to print long letters.

Make your letter timely

Tie the subject of your letter to a recent article, editorial or column. Use that article as a hook for communicating your message. Small-circulation newspapers usually print many of the letters they receive. It is more challenging to get a letter printed in a major metropolitan newspaper, so don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t get printed.

Localize your letter

Explain how infants and toddlers in your community will be affected. Lend credibility to your letter by noting your professional experiences in the community that prompted you to write on this topic.

Use “levels of thought” as a method for organizing your letter

The FrameWorks Institute, a non-profit communications research organization, “adopts the position… that people reason on the basis of deeply-held moral values…” Those moral values are part of a hierarchical process for how people think about ideas and issues, which they refer to as “levels of thought.” You can use levels of thought to structure your letter to the editor. Begin your letter with a big idea or value (level one) that provides a context for understanding the more specific details (levels two and three) of your communication.

  • For example, The Early Head Start program has made it a priority to provide the best start in life for all its babies and toddlers, so that their children will grow up to be good citizens of the community. The Early Head Start program offers an array of services to pregnant women, infants, toddlers and their families, including home visitation, parent support, early learning and access to medical, mental health and early intervention services. But this community program cannot succeed without adequate federal support for Early Head Start. Reauthorization of Early Head Start is right around the corner. It’s time to remind our federal policymakers that babies in Fillmont, Indiana and across the country depend on them.

Be mindful of the tone of your letter

The tone of your letter can either support or overpower the substance of the message you are trying to communicate. Therefore, choosing and controlling tone2 is an important element of your communication.

Write about good news, not just bad

Thank the paper (when appropriate) for its positive and accurate coverage of an infant-toddler issue. Or thank a policymaker for being a champion for infants and toddlers in the state or community.

Include your name, title, address and daytime phone number

Editors like to confirm that the letter was actually written by the person whose name is on it. Also be sure to provide your professional title and affiliation, as it lends credibility to your letter.

Consider other newspapers for publication

Many metropolitan areas have free weekly community newspapers that go to thousands of homes. Many cities also have newspapers for specific ethnic groups. Consider sending your letter to the editors of these other widely-read publications.

Mail a copy of your published letter to your state legislators and members of Congress

Policymakers subscribe to local newspapers in their districts. You can continue to build your relationship with them by sending copies of your letter.

View a Sample Letter

Opinion Editorial Strategies

Focus your message on one key point

Although there may be many elements to the infant-toddler issue you want to address, you will have more success if your editorial is focused and easy to understand.

Keep it short

Typically newspapers will accept op-eds of 500-800 words. Magazines may accept slightly larger pieces, but check the publication’s requirements before you submit your column.

Tell the readers upfront why they should care

Give voice to the babies that aren’t often heard by telling readers why they should care.

Offer specific recommendations

“An op-ed is not a news story that simply describes a situation; it is your opinion about how to improve matters.” Make your call to action something concrete and realistic.

Make your op-ed timely

Editors will be looking for op-ed columns that are compelling and which engage readers in the public debate about a timely issue.

Review the opinion pages

By reading the opinion pages, you can get a sense of what is being covered and what is not being addressed. You can also get an idea of the types of op-eds that the editor publishes.

View a Sample OpEd

Sample of a Published Letter to the Editor

This letter was published in the Washington Post, November 6, 2016.

To the Editor:

The Nov. 1 Health & Science article “Help is scarce for troubled youth” discussed the shortage of child psychiatrists, which is leading to a critical lack of access to mental health care for adolescents. Even before adolescence, however, the need for mental health intervention exists and access to services for our youngest children is dire.

Infants and very young toddlers deal with issues that can often manifest in dysfunction or illness even before preschool, when expulsion rates are more than three times the expulsion rate of students in Kindergarten through 12th grade. The brains of babies and young toddlers are developing rapidly, forming the architecture for future learning and progress. If they are exposed to unrelenting trauma, fear or stress, it can result in challenges that are harder to address down the road. Taking up comprehensive mental health reform for the young — already passed through the House and on the Senate’s plate right now — is something Congress can and should come together to do now.

Matthew E. Melmed, Executive Director ZERO TO THREE, Washington, D.C.

Sample of a Published OpEd

This Sample Opinion Editorial, published in the New Haven Register, May 7, 2015.

There is growing evidence that early childhood interventions work, and they also represent an excellent return on investment. This statement, made by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3, in a recent congressional budget hearing, is backed by extensive evidence. But the reality is that too many babies, in Connecticut and across the country, are falling behind developmentally even before their second birthday.

We recently had the chance to reinforce these points in testimony to DeLauro and her colleagues on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. If this country is to remain globally competitive, we argue, there is no greater return than an investment in our youngest assets — our children. More specifically, our babies.

Babies are born with an amazing capacity to learn. During these early years, neurons are being connected at a rate that far surpasses any other age period. It is during this time that the basic brain architecture is being formed.

Unfortunately, too many babies live in circumstances that undermine their chance for healthy development. Here in Connecticut, 52 percent of children under the age of 3 experience at least one risk factor — poverty, residential mobility, unemployed parents, among others. Our prosperous state looks better than the country as a whole, with 35 percent of Connecticut’s children under age 3 living in low-income families, as compared with 47 percent nationally. But that prosperity masks shocking pockets of poverty where many young children live in great deprivation. In Hartford, half of all young children live in poverty — $24,250 for a family of four — and one in five lives in deep poverty (roughly $12,000 for that family of four). Statistically, these children face steep odds to reach their potential, and we as a state and a nation have much to lose if they don’t.

If we are going to turn around the outlook for these children and our nation, we have to get beyond seeing the risks they face and focus on developing their enormous potential. That means making investments now in programs and services that are proven performers.

One such proven performer is home visiting for young children and families. These dual generational programs have shown a range of benefits — from improving children’s health and school readiness to enhancing parents’ ability to support their children’s development to improving family economic self-sufficiency. For every dollar invested in home visiting, the public realizes a savings of $1.80 up to $9.50.

A rigorous evaluation conducted at Yale University, for example, found that participation in one Connecticut home visiting model, Minding the Baby, was directly responsible for higher rates of on-time pediatric immunization, significantly lower rates of rapid pregnancy, better parent-child interactions and attachments, and significantly lower rates of child protection referrals for neglect or abuse.

Early Head Start, which serves families and children prenatally to age 3, is another proven performer here in Connecticut and across the country. A rigorous national evaluation of Early Head Start found significant impacts in language skills, social skills and interactions, and behavior. In addition, parents have been more engaged with their children, are more likely to read to them, and display more appropriate and safe disciplinary practices. Many of these positive outcomes continue into school entry and beyond.

In fact, research following children who participated in high quality early care and learning services from infancy to school entry shows the positive benefits reverberating well into adulthood in the form of educational attainment and fewer chronic health problems.

If we focus on developing the potential these children represent, we can change these outcomes and yield productive students and adults. To provide all children with the supports they need to thrive and succeed, we must ensure that investments are made in the youngest children as early as possible through high-quality early care and education programs. Doing so will significantly decrease the school readiness gap, place children on a positive educational trajectory, and provide a sizable return on our national public investment. The old adage “you only get out what you put in” rings true. Let’s ensure this next generation of innovators, thinkers and contributors have all they need to succeed when they need it the most: on day one.

WALTER GILLIAM, New Haven, CT and MATTHEW MELMED, Washington, D.C.

Dr. Walter Gilliam directs The Edward Zigler Center at Yale University and is a board member of ZERO TO THREE. Matthew Melmed is the executive director of ZERO TO THREE, a national nonprofit committed to promoting the health and development of infants and toddlers.

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