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Tips for writing a public letter

Self-portrait, by Samuel van Hoogstraten

Even with the decreasing importance of print media, letters to the editor of your local newspaper are a good way to help to defend climate change education. Following are a few time-tested principles for writing effective letters to the editor.

  • Keep it short and succinct. The more concise your letter, the more likely it will appear exactly as you wrote it. Make sure that every word is essential to the overall point of your letter. Newspapers typically want letters to the editor not to exceed 300 words.
  • Focus. You can’t do everything in the space of a letter to the editor, so limit yourself to covering the key points. In responding to a previous letter, it is often sufficient to expose the most glaring and absurd error, to invoke a relevant authority, or to address the issue in general terms.
  • Criticize misconceptions, not people. A personal attack on a climate change denier makes the denier seem like a victim and you seem like a bully. (Plus it invites the denier to respond in kind.) Take the high road by discussing the issues, not the personalities.
  • Do your homework. If you are criticizing climate change deniers for misunderstanding or misrepresenting the consensus of the scientific community on climate change, you cannot afford to make the same mistake yourself. Be sure to do the research to ensure that you don’t.
  • Humor is helpful. A witty letter is more likely to be selected by editors and to be remembered by readers. (But it’s not always easy to be witty! Angry sarcasm or flippant irrelevancy is potentially counterproductive, so try the joke out on friends and family to make sure that it works.)
  • Play to your strengths. If you have relevant credentials, emphasize them in your letter. A letter from a scientist, especially a climate scientist, or a science teacher, especially a climate science teacher, enjoys a degree of extra credibility.
  • Coordinate with friends. There is the danger that if too many letters on one subject come in at one time, then editors may print only a few. If you and your colleagues intend to write letters, it may be best to space your letters a few days apart and address different issues.
  • Be persistent. It may take a number of attempts before a newspaper publishes one of your letters, especially if it has a large circulation. Do not be discouraged; eventually the editor will tire of printing yet more letters on the latest political scandal, and start looking for a little variety.