A Piece of Your Mind


Some things just make you mad–that motorcycle driver who cut you off last Thursday, the outrageous cost of movie tickets, the cell phone that went off during your Powerpoint presentation that counted for 25% of your biology grade. Aside from committing a crime or throwing a fit, what can you do about it? You’re about to discover what newspapers are really for: good old-fashioned, clearly-stated, steam-letting LETTERS TO THE EDITOR.

Some might say this is a dying art. Some would be right: Internet posting and talk-radio calling is now the medium of choice for expressing outrage. But the outrage expressed is unfocused, unpersuasive and often silly. Besides, it doesn’t last very long; readers log off, listeners tune out, and nobody remembers within an hour what the main point was, or if there was a point. Newsprint, however, lasts–at least as long as it takes for everybody in the house to check out the comics and sports section before Mom uses it to drain the bacon on.

So long as you don’t make a nuisance of yourself and bombard them every week with a new complaint, most magazine and newspaper editors are happy to receive mail from readers. Magazine “Letters” pages are usually limited to specific articles, and are heavily edited. But newspaper opinion pages cry out to be filled, and editors will print letters on any subject as long as they’re coherent and won’t lead to a lawsuit.

So next time, don’t get mad–get read.

The foolproof formula for a letter to the editor follows this outline:

1. Get the reader’s attention.
2. State the problem.
3. Suggest a solution.
4. Challenge the reader.

Numbers 1 and 4 need be no longer than one sentence. Numbers 2 and 3 can reasonably be expected to take two to four sentences each. You may choose to break each number into a separate paragraph, or run it all in one or two paragraphs. The thing to remember is, keep it short. Who wants to read a two-column letter? “Keeping it short” may sound easy, but often it’s harder to be concise than it is to be wordy. Ideally, you should be writing not just to blow off steam but to express your point of view in a way that makes readers think. And maybe even change their minds.

Use a “hook” such as a question, a shocking fact or statistic, or a brief personal experience or anecdote. For example:

Last year, thirty-six cell phone users were attacked by enraged presenters when their phones went off during a presentation. (Just kidding–barely)

How many times have you been completely engrossed in a movie, speech or sermon, and someone’s cell phone went off nearby?

I had them in the palm of my hand. Twenty-six students in my biology class were totally caught up in my explanation of amoeba reproduction when, at the climactic moment, the clinky tones of “The William Tell Overture” totally destroyed the mood.

Don’t write a list of gripes; stick to the one facet of the issue you consider to be most substantial. Choose your words carefully, avoid calling names or slandering motives and make every effort to sound reasonable–not like someone who’s pounding the table with a fist.

Basically there are two solutions to any social problem–that authorities do something to govern individuals or that individuals do something to govern themselves. Which would be more effective in this particular case? Think carefully, then suggest (don’t demand) that certain steps be taken.

Since you don’t expect anyone to throw down the newspaper and rush to answer your call to action, this “challenge” will be fairly mild. The most you can expect is that readers think about the issue, and your conclusion should give them something to think about. This can be a clear re-statement of the solution:

“Turn it off” reminders posted outside of every classroom won’t eliminate the problem, but it should mean fewer presentations that end in disaster.

Or it could be a question:

Is it too much to ask that cell phone users try a little harder to exercise courtesy?

Or it could be direct challenge:

So whenever someone gets up to speak, imagine yourself in their position and ask this little question: Is my cell phone on?

It might be a more serious issue that troubles you. What is the one aspect about it that troubles you the most? Should somebody hear about it? Think your local newspaper editor will publish a letter about it?

What are you waiting for?