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The write stuff

How to write a powerful letter

Treble your impact!
Writing to MPs, councillors and officials

Writing to newspapers
Contributing to campaigns

Contributing to blogs
Contributing to internet forums and discussion lists
Contributing to internet-based campaigns
Writing to companies
Design a campaign

Help us improve this guide

Writing to MPs, councillors and officials

It is important that we tell elected officials and other leaders where we stand on issues. Our input on water supplies and use, suburban sprawl into bushland, biodiversity, reducing climate change, human population and other issues shapes the way our representatives create and implement environmental and social policy.

E-mails, postcards, and phone calls are good communication tools, but letters (and faxes) remain the most effective and persuasive way of communicating our views to elected officials and leaders. Leverage the impact of your letter by following it up with a phone call, a letter to a newspaper and anything else you can think of that will counter the influence of those arguing from the other side. Remember your aim is to influence the politician and to do this you will have to overcome the industry lobbyists on 'the other side'.

Letter writing gives MPs who often find it hard to get a good response from constituents the opportunity to represent them.

These tips will help you write a persuasive letter:

  • Form
    • Keep it short.
    • Focus on one or two main points. You can attach a separate summary of the background and context.
    • Limit your letter to one page and one issue
    • Focus on one or two main points. You can attach a separate summary of the background and context.
    • Consider sending a handwitten card - eye-catching and brief.
    • Include your name and address on both your letter and envelope.
    • Ask for a reply.
  • Composition
    • In the first paragraph of your letter state who you are and what issue you are writing about. If you are referring to specific legislation, identify it by its correct title.
    • Draw on authoritative sources where possible such as WHO, IPCC etc. Include a sharp summary of a central conclusion from the body concerned.
    • Choose the strongest arguments to support your argument and develop them clearly. Too much information can distract from your position. Prune your draft letter of less relevant material and use that pruned material as the centrepiece of another letter.
    • Prepare succinct attachments - graphs, coloured pictures, cartoons. Invest in a colour printer and learn how to use desk-top publishing packages for greatest impact. Remember, you are competing with lobbyists and others who use these tools professionally; get hold of their material and work out how to beat them at their own game.
  • Etiquette
    • Identify yourself and the issue.
    • Don't write any words in capital letters nor use underlining or colours other than black or dark blue - politicians recognize these features as characteristics of nutters! Let your words speak for themselves.
  • Tone
    • Be confident in your understanding of the issue and remember that the addressee may know less than you do or that they may not have firm views. Thank a member or councillor when they vote the way you want
    • Be firm but polite. Your aim is to effect change, not vent your feelings.
    • Write as though the recipient is open to reason and discussion.
  • Persuasion
    • Make it personal: refer to a member's electorate or State, to your suburb, point to the addressee's past statements, their party's positions, their previous reply to a previous letter, local problems and events etc. This may require research and verification rather than trusting to memory; your credibility rests on your accuracy.
    • Tell the addressee why the issue matters to you and how it affects you, your family, and your community. Make a connection to the addressee. Did you vote for her? Did you contribute to the campaign?
    • When the reply comes, do not be put off if it is bland or indicates that your first letter was either not read or it was misunderstood. Use the reply as an opportunity for a second letter which you can now focus using the information in the reply. Keep the correspondence going!
    • Remember, most letters to MPs and, especially, ministers, are not read by the addressee. (Ministers often look more closely at letters from their own constituents.) MPs will generally, however, read the reply their staffer has given them to sign. This is another reason to consider a second letter which has a better chance, if it draws politely but firmly on their reply, of being read personally by the addressee.
    • Encourage other constituents to write their own letters on the same topic.
    • Keep it short.
  • Treble your impact!
    • Follow up your letter with a personal visit. Attend public functions attended by the politician, introduce yourself, chat to them briefly and politely (don't harrangue) and hand them a single sheet of follow-up information (preferably with graphs or illustrations and always well-designed - something they find so attractive they will pocket it for reading later). Continue attending functions and participate in a way that earns respect of others. Always greet the politician with a friendly, snappy reminder of your position on the issue. Writing a letter is just the beginning; to be effective, your letter has to be part of a continuing, energetic program of activity on your part. Welcome others to your cause. Remember, your opposition will be relentless - you must be relentless and dedicated, too.

A better letter to the editor

Letters to the editor are one of the most widely read sections of the newspaper and reach a large audience. They allow community members to comment on the way issues are being addressed in the media and to influence what topics the local paper covers. MPs usually monitor this section of the newspaper and take notice of constituents' opinions.

If you see an article in the paper in which an industry or government spokesperson says something that is challengeable or overlooks an important point, write a letter to the editor.

Due to strict space limitations in newspapers, not all letters will be published, but the more letters the newspaper receives on a certain topic, the more likely they are to run at least one letter on the topic. Check the letter guidelines in your local paper and use these tips to write an effective letter to the editor:

  • Form
    • Keep it short and focused. Keep paragraphs brief.
    • Use short sentences wherever possible; 20 words for a sentence is about the maximum length.
    • Include your contact information: name, address, e-mail address and daytime phone number. Most newspapers will publish a letter to the editor only after verifying the author’s contact information. When printed, the letter will usually only include your name and suburb or town.
    • If you send your letter by post, type and print your letter or write it by hand and sign it.
    • If you send your letter by e-mail (e-mail is preferable), make sure you follow the newspaper's guidelines for e-mailed letters.
  • Composition
    • Many newspapers have strict length limits and edit letters for space. A concise, single-issue letter has a better chance of keeping the reader's interest.
    • Although some newspapers will print general letters, most seem to prefer letters that respond promptly to a specific article. Here are two ways to refer to an article:
      • "I was impressed by the comprehensive water conservation solution outlined in the 5 June article, 'Fresh ideas on grey water'."
      • "I disagree with Minister Jackson's position against restrictions on land clearing (SMH, 5 June, page 6)."
    • Highlight aspects of the issue that haven’t been previously addressed.
    • Where a choice exists use a simpler word rather than a more complicated one - nothing lost this way, and it communicates to the broadest possible base of readers.
    • A proven model is to have three paragraphs: the opening one stating your case; the second providing evidence; and the third a call to action or conclusion in another sense: "so therefore we can all agree that the policy is ..."
    • Remember newspapers reserve the right to edit your letter.
    • Go over the letter and take anything out that is repetitive.
    • Leave your letter in draft for a few hours then return to it for a final edit; you'll almost always find that you can improve it by removing ambiguities or other infelicities. If possible ask a friend to proof-read it for you.
    • Check the letter for typos, spelling, grammar and references before you send.
  • Etiquette
    • Do not send the same letter to different newspapers. If you want to have a letter published in more than one paper, write markedly different letters.
    • If you quote statistics, make sure they are accurate.
    • Try to balance positive letters with negative ones to the same editor. The job of the letters editor is to produce a collection of letters that adds to the appeal of their paper.
  • Tone
    • Use a punchy ending and beginning - something to catch attention first up, and end the letter with a punch line, or a question for the reader to consider.
    • Humour is good. Include a funny line if you can.
  • Persuasion
    • Organize a group of people in a campaign to respond to each others' letters and counter opposing letters. Don't try to take on a campaign on your own - it's more effective and more fun in a group of like-minded people, such as FFF members.
    • Respond promptly to published articles, preferably by midday on the day the article appears.
    • Send letters to smaller newspapers – country or suburban. They have a better chance of being published than letters to capital city or national papers. Letters to local newspapers can spark local community action.

Don't neglect the on-line news papers like Crikey and Online Opinion which thrive on their reader contributions.

Contributing to campaigns

All the above apply. If you are joining an organization's campaign, make sure you align your request with theirs; check if you are unsure. Try to write your own letter rather than signing your name to an organization's template letter.

Contributing to blogs

All the above apply. Brevity is even more important: make a single point (you can always come back for a second or third post), keep the length to less than 1/2 of a screen view and use hyperlinks to your references wherever possible.

An active general interest Canberra-centred blog is RiotACT. They specialize in twenty or more one or two line comments on each item every day.

Contributing to internet forums and discussion lists

Brevity remains important. Remove from the post on which you are commenting everything other than its bare bones. Excessive repetition of earlier posts and threads irritates readers so much that they won't evaluate the content of your post on its merits.  Don't 'top post'; that is, always place your comment at the foot of your post. Nothing should follow your post. Try to keep the full post down to 1/2 of a screen view.

Contributing to internet-based campaigns

By far the most effective continuing campaigning site is GetUp! Visit their site to subscribe to their weekly e-mail. Because of their large membership and their large donor base, they can afford attention-catching stunts and events.

Writing to companies as part of a campaign

The Ecologist in April 2007 provides this example of a successful campaign: In 2003, Finland's last old-growth forests in Malahvia were saved when 3,000 plus people sent letters to the biggest customers of state-owned forestry enterprise Metsahallitus. The letter campaigners asked StoraEnso, UPM-Kymmene and M-Real not to buy pulp and timber produced through forest destruction. Metsahallitus had planned to use clear-cutting and selective logging despite scientific evidence showing the high biological value of the forests.

Another idea is a letter-writing party at which a video is shown and material provided to produce, say, twenty letters in an evening.

In 2003 7,000 people wrote to Japanese woodchip customers urging them not to buy Gunns woodchips.

The American Medical Students' Association and Global Response have prepared guides to help plan and run a letter-writing campaign. The inimitable Umbra Fisk of Grist.org provides her tips here and Amnesty International's guide is here.

Design a campaign

Writing letters is most effective if it's strategically done. That is - target a politician who's in a marginal seat and rattle him/her - such as, if they don't act on this or make a public statement, they could be in the local paper having to defend themselves.

Personal contact is generally better than writing. Individuals can make appointments to see their local MP - that way you can gauge if the information is being retained. Ask the MP to forward the material to the Minister either personally or by letter and ask for a copy of any letters and responses from the Minister to the MP.

If you get an appointment, send succinct pre-reading material - it may be read beforehand - but it means you can refer to it in the meeting you can'tf not, leave the material behind.

The most complex issues should be able to be put down on 2 pages - if there is real interest in the topic, it can be expanded later.

Help us improve this page

Rapid evolution of internet facilities and other media, shifts in newspaper reader demographics and target audiences, movement through the electoral cycle - all these lead to new opportunities and to earlier advice being superseded. If you have experience which will help us to make the above information more relevant to today's situation, please let us know.

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