IDEA #13. Write a letter to the editor of a newspaper or magazine–even your school newspaper–on an issue you care about. Pat yourself on the back if your letter is published.
Newspapers and many magazines came into being as organs of opinion as much as information; many newspapers actually consider their opinion-editorial (known as “op-ed”) pages to be their centerpieces. Along with the work contributed by their own staffs and whichever columnists they choose to publish, most happily publish numbers of “letters to the editor” in each issue.
The key here is to find an article that interests that child and about which she or he has an opinion–preferably a strong opinion based on real understanding of and engagement with the topic or issue. Help the child develop this opinion by asking questions, suggesting alternative perspectives, and looking for the strongest and most persuasive arguments and evidence to support it. Then it’s time to sit down and write the letter, which can be submitted by email or even old-fashioned snail mail.
The letter to the editor is a small art form in itself. Brevity and clarity matter greatly, and most newspapers print a disclaimer that letters chosen for publication may be edited for these qualities. But along with being intelligible and pithy, the letter must also make super-clear its relationship to some specific matter on which the publication has published either news or commentary. In other words, the letter must be about something that has already come up, and the letter to the editor is thus written to comment on or express agreement or disagreement with something the newspaper or magazine has already published or at least about an issue that has appeared in its pages.
The letter to the editor should begin with a specific reference to the publication’s content related to the issue, and the letter should then immediately make clear the writer’s point of view relative to the publication’s; it is acceptable, we should point out, to agree as well as to disagree. In a second paragraph the writer should specify with evidence just why he or she holds a specific opinion or why he or she recommends a specific course of action. If the opinion or recommendation agrees with the publication’s position, it would be best if the writer were to bring forward some novel reason—otherwise, why should the newspaper be much interested?
A final, short paragraph should recapitulate the writer’s main point and sign off, followed by a signature over a legible printed name, an address, and a contact telephone number or e-mail address.
Many newspapers and magazines will contact the writer of a letter that they select for publication, but there is a good chance that, once sent, the writer will hear nothing at all. Most publications receive far more letters than they could possibly publish, and so there is a selective and competitive aspect to the writing of a letter to the editor that must be acknowledged.
If the writer chooses to write to the editor of a school publication, the same suggestions hold as to format and content, and the chances become significantly greater that a letter may be published.
A note on format: Letters to the editor, even if transmitted via e-mail, should follow proper business letter style with regard to punctuation, salutation, closing, and overall structure. Since writing a business letter is something of a lost art, the young writer might be guided to examples from a parent or guardian’s correspondence or to “textbook” examples that can be found in student writing handbooks or library or online reference books.