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Atheist Activism: Write Letters to the Editor & Reach Out to People


Letters to the Editor:

One of the few remaining forums for public opinion, accessible to nearly anyone and read by so many, is the letters to the editors page in newspapers. Most papers have one and you should take advantage of them if you are looking for a way to publicize a godless, secular, humanist, atheist perspective. Make it clear that your perspective is godless and respectable. Write often; your name may be remembered and your letters may rise to the top when controversial issues are discussed.

Pick a Topic and Write Quickly:

A letter to the editor is not a rambling essay on all of the ills in the world or everything that’s wrong with religion. A letter to the editor must address one particular topic, preferably a story that was reported on in the newspaper in the past couple of days. Your letter to the editor must be created promptly; the longer the delay between the story and your comments, the less likely the editor is to print it.

Be Brief:

Take a look at the letters to the editor in today’s newspaper — you’ll see that they are all short. Keep your letters to between 100 and 200 words, which is at most three short paragraphs. Don’t waste space quoting a newspaper article you are addressing — reference the title and author, but otherwise get right to your own comments. If you can make your first line catchy, do so — that increases chances of being printed and read. A catchy title is also a good idea for getting people’s attention.

Pick One or Two Key Points:

You can’t write about everything you might want to in a letter to the editor. For every letter you write, pick one or two key points you want to address. Refer to them in the first paragraph and explain your position in the second and third paragraphs. Don’t be ambiguous or equivocal in your opinion; take a position on an issue and be forthright in what you think. Of course, don’t forget to check your spelling — two or three times, if necessary.

Watch Your Language in your Letter to the Editor:

Newspapers aren’t going to print profanities and vulgarities, that much is obvious. At the same time, they aren’t going to print letters filled with technical jargon or seriously advanced language. You might be well educated and understand what you have written, but the average American only reads at around an 8th grade reading level. Watching your language doesn’t just mean being polite and civil, it means using language that can be understood, giving you a better chance to be printed.

Be Clear in Your Letter:

Don’t wander around your point as if you are trying to avoid it. Simple, declarative statements are a good idea. A conversational tone, written as if addressed directly to the editor, is also a good idea. Don’t raise tangential or irrelevant issues. Even if they print your letter, those parts will be edited out. Don’t give the editors a reason to edit your letter for you — be strict with your own writing and make it worth printing in full.

Pay Attention to the Editor’s Guidelines:

Most newspapers have specific rules as to what they do and do not want. Follow these rules to the letter and do not deviate from them — if you do, it’s likely that your letter will be ignored. Stick to the required word length. Include your name, address, and phone numbers — if they are interested in printing your letter, they will probably call to verify that you really wrote it, so be sure that they can contact you.

Write Letters to the Editors Often:

Most newspapers have a limit on how many letters they will print from any one person in a given time period — often it’s around one letter per person per month. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write more often, though. A good letter might be saved for a few days and then used. If you write a lot and write really well, you will be remembered by the staff; this means that your future letters stand a better chance of being picked. Be known as a good writer, not as a crank.

Work With Friends When Writing Letters:

There’s no need for you to labor in solitude. If you know people with similar opinions, you should work with them to write about the same stories and issues. If 20 of you submit letters on the same topic, all differently written, there’s a better chance that one will be printed than if just a single person writes. Just as important, unprinted letters are still read and may influence future editorials and stories.

Importance of Letters to the Editor:

Letters to the editor of your local newspaper might not seem very important, but they are vastly underestimated. They can be an important tool of advocacy for those who know how to write them and how to use them. Research indicates that they are one of the most read features in a newspaper. Notice their place of prominence: right on the editorial pages, alongside the opinion pieces written by the newspaper’s own editors.

Newspaper editors read these letters and use them to gauge the public mood — not just about the paper’s own reporting, but also about the issues generally. Politicians read these letters in order to get an idea about what people are saying and thinking. People motivated enough to write letters to the editor are also likely to be active in other ways — not the least of which is voting on election day. The opinions of activists who vote carry more weight than the opinions of those who don’t bother voting.

Based solely on the odds, it’s unlikely that any one letter to the editor will be published. Following the advice above should increase your chances over and above all of the other letters submitted, but it’s still likely that most of your letters will remain unpublished — yet this doesn’t mean that your writing won’t have an impact. It’s still your letter, so in addition to affecting the staff who reads your letter, you can also self-publish it (like in a blog) and thereby affect many other readers all over the world.

Always keep in mind that your full name will likely be printed with your letter, which means that many, many people will know nothing about you aside from this letter. Don’t treat your audience like adversaries; treat them like supporters who simply need to be convinced. Help them understand your position and why it’s in their best interest to support you. If there is relevant biographical information about you, like your membership on a relevant organization, include it.

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