PR TECHNIQUE - LETTERS TO THE EDITOR: Out of the slush and into print

Letters to the editor and op-ed articles can pack the same publicity punch as a paid ad. But why do some never make into print? Wes Pedersen offers some sure-fire ways to get your piece published.

Letters to the editor and op-ed articles can pack the same publicity punch as a paid ad. But why do some never make into print? Wes Pedersen offers some sure-fire ways to get your piece published.

Letters to the editor and op-ed articles can pack the same publicity punch as a paid ad. But why do some never make into print? Wes Pedersen offers some sure-fire ways to get your piece published.

Looking for a powerful, cost-effective way to get your point across?

Letters to the editor and op-ed pieces offer an unparalleled range of opportunities for significant distribution of payload messages. Sometimes, they even have a greater impact than expensive advertisements.

The wonderful thing about them, of course, is their minimal price tag.

But you may waste valuable billable time and effort - and get nothing to show for it - if you write letters and op-eds haphazardly.

If your piece doesn't run, it's usually because you've failed to come up with a fresh slant, you've blown smoke, you've been boring or you've ranted. Here are some simple rules you can follow that can greatly improve your chances of being published.

For starters, be sure your letter to the editor is easy to read and stays on the point. If you focus on one particular element, you've already got a leg up on the writer who thinks he's going to score with a flock of details that will 'set the record straight.'

In addition, try to hold each sentence of your letter to less than 20 words - a tested, comfortable fit for most readers. In total, a letter of 100-150 words will be welcomed by many editors because it will literally fit better on the page.

Op-eds, on the other hand, can be fairly long if your topic is genuinely interesting, well written and devoid of spleen. Try not to go too long, however. You can cover a great deal of ground in 500 words.

If you're convinced that you need more space to get your points across, go ahead. Most likely, though, the editor will request cuts, or have a whack at your piece, trimming what is considered fat.

Although they are rarely appropriate for weekday editions, articles of a thousand words or more can fare well in weekend editions, where detail is often equated with quality coverage.

Here's a rule that applies to both letters and op-eds: don't be afraid to be funny. A serious message can be more palatable if you season it with humor.

Just as valuable as appropriate length and grabbing content is learning how to target your letters and op-ed pieces. For this, media directories can be an invaluable resource: Bacon's books cover all media; the News Media Yellow Books put out by Leadership Directories target the national media; and Editor & Publisher's annual directory covers all kinds of newspapers.

Hudson's Washington News Media Directory is also great.

Further, study targeted newspapers and magazines - interest by interest, profession by profession - and you'll develop a sixth sense about topics likely to appeal to specific editors.

General-circulation papers and magazines welcome a wide range of contributions, whereas publications targeted to specific audiences, interests and professions are more tunnel-visioned. Pick the publication most likely to be read by your target audience.

For example, are the people you are trying to reach markedly erudite?

The New York Times would, of course, be an outstanding newspaper to try with a think piece, particularly one with a political bent. Even though it leans Democratic, it draws readers of all political faiths and is really a 'national' paper, giving extensive coverage to an amazing variety of subjects beyond politics and borders.

USA Today, which thinks of itself as the 'real' national paper, is considerably more free-wheeling than the Times and thus eager to consider contributions on all manner of issues. The same goes for Time, Newsweek and US News & World Report.

Also, there's nothing wrong with thinking 'small.' If your letter or op-ed article is targeted to a hometown issue, you stand a pretty fair chance of making it into print.

TV news magazines offer opportunities to respond to coverage of major issues. They like their 'letters' short, with snap and zing. You can learn a lot from writing short, to-the-point commentaries for the press by watching these shows. Check out the end-of-program signature letters from motivated viewers on 60 Minutes. They've been chosen because they make a point fast and get out of the way.

Whether you submit a letter to the editor or an op-ed piece, be prepared to have your prose worked over. Unless changes have done significant damage to your otherwise untouchable offering, you shouldn't call and denounce the publication and its editors as insensitive, ham-handed hacks. Odds are they have actually improved your masterpiece.

The typical editor will assume he or she has done you a favor just by giving you free space. Don't cut yourself off from future placement possibilities by berating anyone. Also, be sure to e-mail a nice thanks-for-publishing-my-words note.

If a week or more goes by and your letter or op-ed hasn't surfaced, resist the urge to call and ask why. You're toast. Letters come into newsrooms in bushels. Accept the fact that yours failed to ring anyone's chimes.

Don't beg to be humiliated by pressing for an explanation.

If your piece is published, make copies and distribute them to everyone you want to read your message. Having your copy published by a reputable publication, or used on a Webzine of note, gives that extra cachet of legitimacy to your words.

And here's a final word of caution: if you've done the piece for use under your client's or your boss's name, be sure he or she is the first to know it's in print. And don't boast to too many people that you were the actual author. 'Ghosts' should not have egos.

- Wes Pedersen is director, communications and public relations for The Public Affairs Council.


1. Do hold your letters to about 150 words

2. Do look for a fresh slant on every topic

3. Do focus. Stick to one basic point in letters and no more than two in op-eds

4. Do research the most appropriate medium for your message

5. Do use humor whenever appropriate

1. Don't forget to polish and edit

2. Don't be boring or let tedium be your message

3. Don't blow smoke and try to peddle it as wisdom

4. Don't whine or complain to an editor if your contribution isn't used

5. Don't take credit if you've written a piece for your boss or client and it generates great buzz.

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