Writing a “Letter to the Editor” 101
What is an LTE?
An LTE is a short (150-300 word) response to a print or online article or opinion piece.
Why should I write an LTE?
When it comes to advocacy, LTEs serve at least three important purposes:
If published, an LTE can:
One: Advance a cause, whether the goal is to raise awareness or correct the record.
Two: Cultivate new advocates.
If it’s not published, it’s still a victory:
Three: You just did something meaningful and useful. You put yourself out there for a cause you believe in. You took the time to write a few brief, well-crafted sentences (hard) instead of many long paragraphs (easier) about a topic important to you. The more you practice writing short, high impact LTEs, the better you will be at delivering compelling, concise messages that resonate with your advocacy audience(s).
How do I write an LTE?
It’s Simple! (Ok: It’s simple-ish.) Let’s start general and then do a quick walk through:
- Keep your eye out for articles. There are plenty of opportunities to weigh in through an LTE. Look for virtually any article or opinion piece that bears on your cause directly or indirectly and use it as a jumping off point.
- Check out the submission guidelines. Each media outlet has its own submission guidelines, but typically, you send your submission by email, including your contact information, and the outlet will email you back if they are considering your LTE for publication. Tip: Make sure the media outlet is in your “safe sender’s” list. If they don’t hear back from you promptly, you can easily lose your spot.
- Pithy, pithy, pithy. Generally, the shorter your letter, the better the chances of publication. Achieving short, declarative sentences may add time to this task (as Mark Twain famously said: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”). But have faith: brevity isn’t a talent, it’s a skill.
- Practice, practice, practice. Keep at it. If you don’t get published right away, find another article or opinion piece, and try again.
You can do this! If you have committed some time to preparing now, cut and paste this section into a Word document, and we’ll do it together. Just to narrow the field, let’s focus on a health issue:
(We’re a medical and health research advocacy organization: of course, that’s what we’d choose!)
Step 1: Pick your key point.
- What insight or call to action do you want your audience to grasp? At this stage, just write something down. Don’t worry too much about length, crowd appeal, or even grammar. Just type something!
Step 2: Look around.
- Look through a local, regional, or national newspaper for any article or opinion piece addressing a health or health care topic. Tip: Use a Google Alert for one stop shopping.
- Based on the point you want to make in your LTE, summarize or cut and paste the most important points from your article here. You can draw from those points as needed to connect the dots between your message and that of the article. E.g.:
- Article A discusses how the National Institutes of Health’s budget fares under the President’s Fiscal Year XX Budget Proposal. (This is a hypothetical article about a hypothetical budget proposal…) Key points from it:
- If Congress adopts the President’s Budget Proposal for NIH, the five-year streak of ~5% increases for this key federal research agency would come to an end. The Administration is proposing a modest 1.5% increase, spread across only five of the agency’s 12 research institutes.
- NIH is the largest funder of biomedical research in the world and has long enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress.
- Patient organizations and other stakeholders are up in arms over the Administration’s budget proposal, which they say directly contradicts public sentiment and patient need.
Step 3: Refine your key point:
Take the time to reframe your point so it relates to the article you’ve chosen and grabs your reader. Get creative! What’s the punchy, hard-hitting way of conveying you point? E.g.:
- If your point is that the government should increase funding for medical research, and the article you’ve chosen is about potential cuts in funding for the National Institutes of Health, then your point also is: “No war has taken more lives than cancer. No terrorist has bred more suffering than Lupus. Our nation should shore up, not shortchange, medical research.”
- If your point is that pandemic preparedness is important and the article you’ve chosen is about pandemic preparedness fatigue, your point also is: COVID is not business as usual for our planet. In three short years, it took nearly 7 million lives. Remember we were better prepared for COVID than we are for a host of other viral threats. Complacency in the face of vulnerability is perilous.
Give it a go now; you’ll be knocking out the last paragraph of your LTE and framing the rest of it in, um, 15 minutes flat. (We don’t know how long it will take you, but hope springs eternal.)
Step 4: The hard part is (almost) over.
Use this basic template to submit your LTE:
To: Submission email address
Subject: (if the instructions don’t specify the subject you should use, just write “Letter to the Editor for consideration”
Text of Email:
- Dear (name of publication) Editorial Board:
- Thank you for considering the following letter to the editor, which responds to “name of article” published on (date it was published).
- First Line:
- The first line should note the article or opinion piece you are commenting on (Regarding/With respect to/In reference to “Name of article), then summarize your main point and call to action. E.g., Regarding “A Hard-won Breakthrough in Alzheimer’s Research,” the progress the author traces is profoundly important; we need more of it.
- Next Few Lines:
- The next couple of sentences should support the main point.
- Why do you believe what you believe? E.g.:
- Each and every year, diseases – common and rare – take more lives than any war ever has. COVID reminded our nation that catastrophic health threats can place our lives, our economy, our self-sufficiency, and even our democracy, in peril. Why don’t we treat medical progress as a national defense imperative and pursue it with a sense of unrelenting urgency?
- Add at least one data point or personal story. E.g.:
- In the U.S. alone, more than 1 million people under age 45 lose their lives each year to diseases that can be stopped if we gather the will and leverage medical research. COVID alone has taken more than 1.1 million lives here and nearly 6.9 million globally. Yet the National Institutes of Health – the federal agency responsible for funding foundational medical research – must turn away 3 of every 4 promising research proposals it receives. It lacks the funding to advance needed research.
- More than 600,000 people in the U.S. will lose their lives to cancer this year. More than 5 million are living with Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia. That is not unfortunate, it is unforgivable. We can do better.
- I lost my father to ALS, my best friend to breast cancer. Who have you lost? In the face of tragic loss after tragic loss, why is it that the National Institutes of Health, the federal agency charged with propelling life-saving medical progress, must turn away 3 of every 4 promising research proposals it receives?
- To close, reiterate your main point and call to action. E.g.:
- As (name of the article’s author) showcased, medical progress is not easy to achieve, but it is vastly achievable. As it stands, progress is not moving at the pace of tangible scientific opportunity, and that’s tragic.
- Our nation is the largest funder of medical research in the world. We set the bar for medical progress. Knowing that with every day that passes, more and more Americans needlessly lose health, hope and time, we must set that bar higher.
- Conclude however you usually conclude business emails and add contact info: E.g. Sincerely, Your full name, email Address, and phone number
Proofread, proofread again, and hit send!
Congrats! YOU DID IT!!!!
Some additional resources:
- View Research!America’s Sample Letter to the Editor page.
- Check out a much more in-depth LTE Guide from The University of Kansas’ Community Tool Box.
- Use the LTE sample template from Berkely Media Studies Group (PDF).
- Check out the work of The OpEd Project for tips on a related way to share your ideas through longer opinion/editorial pieces.