Planning a Letter to the Editor/Op-Ed

Discussion in 'Aviation Passenger Security in the USA' started by CelticWhisper, Apr 25, 2012.

  1. CelticWhisper

    CelticWhisper Founding Member

    Reading Rep. Schakowsky's sniveling defense of TSA (along with Durrrr-bin's endless "GFY" form letters and Kirk's shoo-fly-don't-bother-me "I'll pass it along, kthxbye" reply (singular)) to my correspondence got me thinking - way back when, in the days of another web forum that predates TUG, I drafted my very first congressional letter and was told two things by many people:

    1. It was very well-written
    and
    2. It would perhaps be better used as a letter to the editor of a newspaper than as a direct letter to Congresspeople.

    Being that some here regard me as a rhetorical heavy-hitter, I'm thinking it's time to make (2) happen. This, like many other forms of political activism, is a first for me so I'm turning to the seasoned veterans here for input. Part of me wants to apologize for needing so much hand-holding, but another part says it's worth it because we need to make every hit count and because every answer posted to me will also be available for others to read - others who may have similar questions. Common sense says hand-wringing never got anything done, so it's onward to victory.

    The questions I have:

    -Which newspaper do I write this to? I live in Park Ridge, IL, so there's the Chicago Tribune nearby, plus the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate. Does it have to be a local paper or can I shoot for NYT or something else super-high-profile?

    -How long should this be? I can wax lyrical for pages upon pages but I know space is at a premium so I want to hit that magic ratio that maximizes chances of publication and also effectively elucidates the points I'm trying to make.

    -A touchy one: I plan to call out, to some degree or another, Schakowsky, Kirk and Durbin for their negligence in defending civil liberties against TSA. The Slashdot article on "How to get through to a politician" mentioned that it's much, much harder for them to brush off news articles that are open to the public than private letters that only they and/or their aides will see. However, I don't want to cross the line into libel. It will be an opinion piece, and I have heard that clearly stating "it is my opinion that" will usually be enough to shield one from accusations of slander/libel, but I don't want to take that for granted. I want to express disappointment in our federal-level elected officials for (Schakowsky) flat-out making excuses for and defending TSA, (Durbin) sending form letter after form letter talking about long-past and pointless things like voting to criminalize leaking AIT photos, and (Kirk) sending two-sentence replies saying he passed the message along to TSA and is washing his hands of it. I realize that these scenarios are how I see it and not necessarily how other readers see it, so I have to figure out how to show skeptical readers that yes, these responses are unacceptable coming from elected officials; and at the same time I need to avoid crossing into personal attacks.

    -Multiple publications. How do papers usually handle copyright on these submissions? I have a policy of releasing all my anti-TSA materials as public domain content and would have no objections whatsoever to anyone else copying my letter verbatim and submitting it to another paper somewhere else to help get the message out there. Getting the word out is what matters to me, not personal glory, but I know some publishers have an "all your submitted content becomes our property" clause so if I run into that...how do I handle submitting this to multiple news sources?

    Thanks in advance, as always, for any help, pointers, guidelines, and answers you can give me. Also as always, I'll be posting periodic revisions of the letter here for review and feedback before I go to the papers with it. Hopefully I can get some advice on them as the work progresses.
     
  2. Lisa Simeone

    Lisa Simeone Original Member

    First of all, don't worry about slander/libel. These are your representatives you're talking about; they're supposed to be representing you! You have the right to say anything you want about how they are or are not doing that. "I think so-and-so is an (expletive deleted)" is protected speech. Obviously you're not going to say that in an op-ed, but you might say something like "I think so-and-so is a coward" or "I think so-and-so has behaved in a cowardly fashion" or whatever, and state your reasons. By all means, call them out by name.

    Second, and you already know this -- keep it short. Cut all extraneous adjectives, adverbs, intensifying qualifiers, unless they're critical. Don't say, for instance, "the TSA treated this passenger appallingly badly." Say, "the TSA treated this passenger badly." You get the drift. Make solid, straightforward statements. Don't be afraid to call things what they are; by the same token, don't belabor the point. Piling on adjectives/adverbs, despite what so many people think, usually dilutes the message, not strengthens it. And use straightforward language; don't lard it up with high-falutin' phrases.

    As for how short, obviously I'm not talking Twitter-time here. Write what you want to say, then go back over and start cutting. Keep cutting until you get down to about 700 words. Then try to cut a little more. Every newspaper has its own rules about how long they want op-eds to be. I'm only going by what the Baltimore Sun (a Tribune paper) expected from me. I did op-eds for them that were anywhere from 750 to 1,500 words. It all depended.

    And definitely start with your local paper, especially if it's syndicated (they almost all are these days), because your op-ed will get reprinted all over the country. That's good. Don't worry about copyright.
     
  3. CelticWhisper

    CelticWhisper Founding Member

    Thank you! That's just the kind of feedback I was hoping for.

    I have to go get this head-mop that some call "hair" taken in a bit and do some work around the house (last day of my vacation, *le sigh*) and then I hope to hammer out a starting draft.
     
  4. Fisher1949

    Fisher1949 Original Member Coach

    Try Susan Stellin at NYT. She ran a story and linked TUG awhile back. Maybe she'd be willing to help since you're a TUG founder.
     
  5. jackonferry

    jackonferry Original Member

    If you are talking about an opinion page editorial, as opposed to a letter to the editor, the following are some good general guidelines. I've had several published over the years, though I have a press office that I can work with. These are some of the things that I have learned in my experience:
    • 700-750 words is generally what you get, though Sunday commentary section pieces can be substantially longer.
    • Good if you can pin your lede (first paragraph) to a current event (ex: like the arrests at LAX). A contemporary peg will make it more attractive.
    • You should also try to shape your lede for the specific paper. If you are aiming for the NYT, you would probably want a national angle; if you are aiming for a local or regional paper, you should try to pin your lede to the community (smaller papers tend to focus on issues that are important to the community).
    • Most papers accept unsolicited opeds, though the competition ranges widely (a former media affairs person at my company told me the LA Times reportedly gets about 100 submissions for every oped published).
    • Don't just gripe, propose solutions. Rants may be cathartic for the writer, but they rarely make compelling opeds.
    • If it is selected, it will get edited and some times you really have to track your key points carefully. I had one in a national newspaper a while back. Key points got lost in the editing, but the editor was very willing to work with me to get them back in. I don't think there was any nefarious intent. They were focused on house style and word count.
     
  6. CelticWhisper

    CelticWhisper Founding Member

    About to head to bed, but wanted to ask: What's the main difference between an Op-ed and a LTTE? I mean, is one better suited than the other for this, is there a general intent of one versus the other, etc.?

    Thanks.
     
  7. Lisa Simeone

    Lisa Simeone Original Member

    A letter to the editor is just that. It responds to an article that's already been printed, and it's short (if it wants to get published). An op-ed is a longer-form piece, a chance to delve more deeply into an issue. It doesn't have to respond to anything that's already been published in the paper. It can be about any subject.
     

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