How to Write a Letter to the Editor: Examples, Tips and More

Person writing a letter to editor on laptop

By Freedom Forum

Extra, Extra! Read all about it! You, too, have the power to make your voice heard using the freedom of the press – even if you’re not a journalist.

It’s not breaking news that the First Amendment protects journalists and their ability to report without the government approving it first or punishing them for what they report (with some very narrow exceptions). But freedom of the press isn’t just reserved for journalists or those who work in “the press.”

For example: writing a letter to the editor.

The decline in circulation and number of printed newspapers and magazines in recent decades means such ways of making your voice heard by literally having your words printed for anyone to read aren’t as widespread. But writing a letter to the editor or asking a news outlet to carry a guest commentary you’ve written is still worthwhile. Many people write comments online. But having a letter or commentary published gives your voice a bigger and possibly more influential platform in a deep sea of voices shouting and arguing in comments sections.

In fact, if you were to write a letter, you’d be using three First Amendment freedoms: speech (which includes writing), petition (if your letter is a call for the government to consider a "redress of grievances"), and the press (since you’re publishing in a news outlet).

But remember: Just because you want to write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper or online news outlet doesn’t mean that outlet must publish it. You have a First Amendment right to say and write what you’d like without being punished by the government. But not every newspaper, magazine or online news outlet publishes letters to the editor or similar guest editorials or commentary – nor are they required to.

News outlets have a First Amendment right to use their editorial discretion in choosing what to publish or not – including letters from the public.

Here's an example from The New York Times highlighting how to submit a letter, submission requirements, the selection process, and more. Look for information regarding letters to the editor for the outlet you want to submit your letter to; this will likely be found on their letters to the editor page in print or online. Here's another example from The Seattle Times.

Learn how to write a letter to the editor with these tips

If you want to know how to write a letter to the editor, consider these questions in the traditional "Five Ws and One H" way that journalists approach reporting:

  • WHO are you trying to reach with your letter or commentary? That will help determine …
  • WHAT is the best way to say what you’re trying to say? Is it a short letter responding to something you’ve previously read? Is it a longer guest commentary objecting to a proposed government policy? That will help determine …
  • WHERE to submit your letter or commentary. Some news outlets only run letters from people who live in the local area where the newspaper publishes. Is this an issue that a national audience would benefit from learning about? If so, consider an outlet with a broader reach. That will help determine …
  • WHEN you need to submit your letter or commentary, depending on the outlet’s frequency of publishing. Even if the newspaper publishes daily, sometimes they only print submitted letters once a week or once a month. That will help determine …
  • WHY you’re writing in the first place. It’s a good question to ask yourself: Is this the best or only method to get your point across to the audience you’re trying to reach? That will help determine …
  • HOW you craft your letter or commentary and the points and arguments you want to make.

RELATED: Browse hundreds of newspapers every day with Today's Front Pages

After asking yourself those questions, here are tips on writing an effective letter to the editor or guest commentary that a news outlet may want to publish.

Remember these tips as L.E.T.T.E.R.: Length, Engage, Topic, Tone, Enlighten, Relate.

  • LENGTH: Keep the letter short and to the point. Also, base the length of your letter on the length of letters the outlet typically runs. If most are about 300 words, stick to that. If you keep your letter brief and in line with what they want, editors are more likely to read and consider it.
  • ENGAGE: Use language that engages people conversationally. For example: “I’m writing about a topic that’s near and dear to me and probably a lot of people: the cost of living in our city.”
  • TOPIC: Keep it to one. Including too many topics might be overwhelming and cause an editor to overlook your letter.
  • TONE: Be respectful, even if you’re critiquing the news outlet or a government official. If you use language that comes off as angry, aggressive or accusatory, you’re more likely to be turned down. Importantly, just because it’s your opinion doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check your facts. You could be accused of libel or defamation if you purposely say untrue things about someone.
  • ENLIGHTEN: The editor to whom you’re writing and the audience you’re trying to reach may not be aware of the topic at hand. Help educate people in a way that’s not negative. Avoid phrases like “Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you should know …”
  • RELATE: Many people are affected personally by the issues for which they advocate and write letters or commentary. Be sure to say how you’ve been affected – and how your experience highlights the experiences of other people in the community, region or country.

An example of one famous letter to the editor – and everyone

Now that you know how to write a letter to the editor, take inspiration from a famous letter by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

King’s widely read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was published in 1963 after he had been arrested and jailed while exercising another First Amendment-protected activity: protesting for social change.

He wrote from jail an open letter to white clergymen, responding to their call for social justice causes to be fought in courts and not through protests and sit-ins. King used what would become one of his most-quoted lines, seen today on many inspirational signs and bumper stickers: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The letter was originally supposed to be printed by The New York Times, but it was dropped. It was later picked up in parts by the New York Post and several magazines.

Since he didn’t have a writing pad in jail, King began by writing in the margins of what he had in his cell: a newspaper.

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