The Write Stuff

Sometimes—usually after the New York Times deigns to publish a letter of mine on behalf of Agudath Israel of America—I’m asked how one “gets a letter” published in a (rightly or wrongly) respected periodical.

Well, the first step is to become the spokesperson for a national organization.

Just joking. It may help a letter’s chances for publication if it is signed by an organizational representative. But it can also hurt them. In any event, most published letters are from individuals writing as such.

One doesn’t, however, “get a letter” published. All one can do is submit a good candidate, one with a chance of striking the fancy of a letters editor. Major publications can receive hundreds of letters a day, from which to choose a handful. There are no shortcuts here (unless the editor is one’s brother-in-law). But “Rabbi Shafran’s How-To Guide” for writing a letter to the editor, below, might be helpful.

1) Never Write and Send a Letter.

That is to say that, after writing one’s letter, one should tear it up (or delete it from the screen). At very least, set it aside for a few hours. Letters always improve with subsequent re-writes, and excesses of emotion in a first draft tend to be softened somewhat—usually a good thing—in a second one.

2) Cut.

Long letters, like long sentences (like this one), are more demanding of readers, and trying to address all five points one would like to make when readers only have patience to consider one or two is counterproductive since it is confusing and off-putting, and since most readers in any event tend to just skim letters pages and settle on the shortest, punchiest offerings. Brevity is best.

3) Become The Other.

As one writes—and re-writes—a letter to the editor, it is important to put oneself in the minds of readers. If writing in a non-heimish Jewish publication, how will it strike a non-Orthodox Jew? A baal teshuvah? If in a non-Jewish publication, how will it strike a non-Jew? Considering one’s letter from an assortment of different perspectives will often inspire a well-chosen change of phrase or word or thought. Engineering a letter to engender empathy or respect isn’t always possible; but when it is, it’s a good idea.

4) Resist Negativity.

There’s a fine line between well-earned indignation and ranting. It’s best to couch even deserved criticism in words that earn a reader’s consideration rather than inspire him to grunt and move to the next letter.

5) Keep Your Eye on the Prize.

Remember that the overarching, ultimate goal is not to “score points” or even, necessarily, to present an unassailable argument. It is to affect others, to make them think about what you have to say. A point won at the expense of the reader’s good will is a tactical loss. Always think tachlis.

6) Write for the Uninformed.

Don’t assume that the reader knows what you do. Include a reference to the article or editorial it addresses, and its date. And, if you use a Hebrew or Yiddish word or Jewish concept, include a succinct definition between commas or parentheses.

7) Bait the Editor.

Give your letter something “tasty” to help make it stand out from others the paper may have received on the same topic. It might be an original insight, your special credentials for addressing the issue, some surprising fact, or a bit of humor or cleverness (in which latter cases it should be tried out first on one’s spouse).

8) Pay Attention to Packaging.

Substance is paramount but superficialities count. Misspellings or grammatical errors are invitations to editors to file a letter in the “circular file.” In addition, a letter to the editor should always include the telephone number[s] of the writer, so that the editor can call to confirm that it was indeed sent by the person signed to it.

Of course, the most important factor of any good letter to the editor is that it has something cogent to say. So before using the checklist above, see to it that your letter meets that requirement. If it does, even if the editor isn’t your brother-in-law, go for it!


The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

Communications: [email protected]

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