Advocacy Tool

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

Mar 12, 2016

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.

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.

Examples of Published Letters to the Editor

This letter was published in Newsweek, August 22, 2005.

To the Editor:

Your Aug. 15 cover story, “Your Baby’s Brain,” did a great job of bringing parents up to date on the latest research on early-childhood development. This information is critical to parents’ ability to nurture their child’s healthy development. However, the explosion of research in early development over the last decade or so has overwhelmed many parents and created a great deal of anxiety. Parents are getting so many mixed messages about what to do with all this information. Suggestions run the gamut from parents’ signing up young children for countless organized, structured learning opportunities to simply trusting their instincts and loving their baby. What parents need is guidance on how to apply all this new knowledge to support their child’s development through everyday interactions. It’s not about cramming a child’s day with classes, or, at the other extreme, simply following parental instincts. The complex process of parenting requires being a careful observer and listener to understand what a child is communicating about her needs, and making thoughtful decisions based on all this information.

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

This letter was published in the New York Times Money & Business section, April 11, 2000.

To the Editor:

Re: “New Dads Feel Work’s Pull, Even on Leave” (Personal Business, April 9), which looked at the demands on male executives who take paternity leave:

I am halfway through my paternity leave and am pleased that people like Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, who has been under pressure to take such time off, are making the issue au courant. During my paid leave, which lasts three months, I have had the joy of watching our daughter grow in a way that one can only with a lot of time. I realize what a priceless gift paternity leave is. I wish that more fathers could experience the delight of taking care of a baby on their own, in an unhurried way that is difficult to do on weekends alone, or shoe-horned around busy workdays.

I never appreciated the demands and rewards of child care until I started doing it solo – and not just for two-hour stretches on a weekend while my wife was running errands. Taking care of our baby is making me a more competent parent who doesn’t feel the need to take a back seat to my wife – something that happens by default in practically all families where the mother is the de facto primary caregiver, particularly when it comes to babies.

I hope that more companies will offer paternity leave as a way to retain valuable employees in this robust economy. The results will surely be a boon to dads, moms, children and, yes, employers, who will see a more satisfied and loyal work force.

Takoma Park, MD
The writer is communications manager at ZERO TO THREE, a nonprofit organization in Washington that deals with issues of early childhood.

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