Last month at the Let Live Conference in Portland, I ran a workshop with Veda Stram of The Animals’ Voice on solo activism. I gave special attention to letter-writing, as I believe this is one of the most under-utilized tools in our activist toolkit.
Following is some of the information I shared with attendees.
Letters to the Editor
Since the Letters page is one of the most highly read sections of newspapers and magazines, a letter to the editor is one of the best tools animal activists have for making our message heard. Letters to editors are easy to write, and every community has at least one newspaper. Sending letters to the editor is effective because they:
- reach a very large audience
- can be used to rebut information not accurately addressed in a news article or editorial
- create an impression of widespread support or opposition to an issue
- are widely read by community leaders and lawmakers to gauge public sentiment about current issues.
There are essentially two kinds of letters to the editor: “soapbox” letters in which the writer expresses an opinion but is not responding to something in the paper, and letters that are in direct response to an article, editorial or another letter that recently appeared in the publication.
Tips for Getting Your Letter to the Editor Published
- Be concise. Start with a strong introductory sentence and follow it up with short, clear facts. Focus on the most important issue rather than trying to cover everything. Most newspapers publish letters that are no more than three hundred words.
- Always include your first and last name, mailing address and daytime and evening phone numbers in case the newspaper or magazine wants to verify that you submitted the letter (though generally only the larger publications will contact you). Only your name and hometown will appear in print.
- Stay professional. Polite, proofread letters are far more effective than personal attacks.
- Mention anything that makes you especially qualified to write on a topic. For example: “As a cancer survivor, I understand the importance of a diet that avoids animal flesh.”
- Readers care about how an issue will affect them personally. Including information on the local economic or other impacts of an issue will draw readers’ interest.
- It is just as important to respond to positive stories, like pro-vegetarian articles, as it is to respond to the negative ones, such as a pro-vivisection article. Generally, people writing letters to newspapers are more likely to voice complaints rather than give compliments, so complimentary letters may be valuable and more likely to be printed.
- Letters to editors sent via email arrive promptly and don’t need to be re-typed. Type your text into a word processing program (i.e., Microsoft Word) and then paste the letter into the body of the email – do not send attachments.
- Remember who your audience is. Direct letters to readers, rather than the newspaper or author of the piece you are responding to. Write your letter so that it makes sense to someone who did not see the piece. Avoid long sentences and big words that the average reader may not understand (unless you’re writing to a scientific or technical publication).
Tips for Effective Animal-Rights Letters to Editors
- Tell readers something they might not know – such as that most hens are confined in battery cages or how dairy cows are treated to produce milk – and suggest ways readers can make a difference (stop buying eggs and dairy products).
- Include information about the issue(s); do not assume that readers already know. For example, rather than writing “Foie gras production is bad,” be specific: “In order to create ‘fatty livers,’ foie gras producers subject ducks and geese to an invasive feeding technique that forces into their stomachs up to thirty percent of their body weight every day. That’s like a two-hundred-pound man being forced to swallow sixty pounds of food a day.”
- Watch your language. Instead of referring to an animal with an inanimate pronoun (“that” or “it”), use “who,” “she” or “he.” Also, use “animal advocates” rather than “animal-rights groups,” “farmed animals” rather than the friendly “farm animals” and “painkiller” rather than “anesthesia.”
- Use positive suggestions to help readers make a difference. For example, rather than simply writing “Boycott the circus,” you can suggest events that don’t use animals, such as Cirque du Soleil, or direct them to Web sites like circuses.com.
- Do not use overly dramatic language, which may turn some readers off. Let the facts speak for themselves.
- Use an affirmative voice. For example, rather than writing “Vegans are not wimps,” write “Vegans have a much healthier body-mass index than most meat-eaters, and they live years longer.”
- Promote the friendly side of veganism/vegetarianism and animal advocacy, and refrain from insults, which will hurt your credibility and perpetuate a negative opinion of animal activists.
- Like humans, animals have a wide range of emotions. Try to depict this in your letters and help people understand how similar animals are to us. For example, “Like all animals, pigs feel pain and fear …”
Don’t be discouraged if your letter is not printed. Every letter you submit educates the editorial board of newspapers and magazines worldwide and paves the way for future letters to be printed.