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Three Tips for Letter Writers

Here are three suggestions for MAP RMs and Volunteers to improve their letter publication percentage. Learn to write using the pyramid style that newspaper editors love so dearly. Study Strunk (see below). And rewrite.

Pyramid Style

Here's how the pyramid style works. Put your most important fact or conclusion in the FIRST sentence. The most spectacular thought in your letter should be spelled out in the very first sentence if at all possible. One way of deciding what the first sentence should be is to think of a short headline describing your main conclusion. Suppose you want to make the point that marijuana is one of the safest drugs known to man; your headline might read "Pot Safer Than Drinking Water." Writing in a logical fashion, you'd bring in all kinds of supporting data and THEN say that pot is safer than drinking water. But that's not the way the pyramid style works. Get right to it and grab the readers interest. "Scientific studies prove that marijuana is safer than ordinary drinking water......"

Layout the most important thought in the first paragraph and then relate your proofs in order of importance. Bring out your study about drinking water deaths and the CDC report on pot fatalities AFTER stating the conclusions drawn from them. At the end reiterate your conclusions--- "a drug safer than aspirin and drinking water should be legal....."

Almost all news stories are done in the pyramid style. If you want further instruction, get a newspaper and go through the NEWS. Invariably, the header over the item is repeated in the first sentence. From there the ideas go down the scale in importance. Very simple really.

An imaginary example could be a story about Clinton's new okra subsidy policy. First off would be quotes from senior administration and opposition officials. Then statements from a few okra growers. Then maybe we'd hear from grocers and shoppers about how the new okra policy would affect them. The value the reporter assigns to each element determines its order.

The reason reporters use the pyramid style is because the item can be cut at almost any point after the first couple of paragraphs and still make sense. This is essential when you don't know beforehand how much space you'll have for the item. You might need half a page or three paragraphs when the paper goes to press. Try cutting a few news items and you'll see how easy it is to fit a story in when you don't know ahead of time how much space there will be for it. The best examples of the pyramid style can be cut at ANY point after the first paragraph and still make sense.

Please note that the pyramid does not apply to columns, OpEd pieces and articles for magazines. In these cases a definite word count is usually imposed to fit the item in and a number of styles are used. As long as you finish within the word limit, it's OK. Of course, the idea of getting the reader's interest right way always applies.


The pyramid style should always be considered when contacting any busy person. If you don't get their attention in the first paragraph, the whole thing is likely to disappear under the "delete" key. You've got to grab them quick. I don't know how many micro-seconds you have to capture their attention, but busy people just won't waste time trying to figure out what your business is. State your conclusion, request or demand in a HEADLINE and get right to it. Bring your proof in later. If you get their attention, they'll read the whole thing. If not, at least you planted your most important thought in the person's mind

I think editors are addicted to the pyramid style because my pyramid letters republished many times more than the rest. I had a couple of letters published that were severely edited, but because they were in the pyramid style they made sense and had some punch left. Sure I like it better when they print the whole thing, but the goal is to get the message out.


Another suggestion is to study "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk & E B White. Strunk teaches the importance of brevity. Strunk's terse lessons on omitting needless words and using the active voice do more to improve most writing than any single thing I know of. Strunk understood the fundamental proposition that less is more when it comes to effective writing. The fewer words you use the better. Wordiness weakens writing. Simplicity has the power to change minds and change the world.

Short and sweet is essential for Letters to the Editor because your letter will only be one of hundreds on every subject under the sun competing for very limited space. So you know up front that a long letter has very little chance of being published. The only really long letters I see come from government officials, heads of large corporations, celebrities, leaders of organizations, the target of an article and the like. The LONGEST letter I've had published was 450 words. Most were half that length. 200-300 words is a good length for publication, but don't waste words. If you can say what you want in 100 words, do it.

"The Elements of Style" is a required text in many college writing classes consequently copies are available in most used book stores. "The Elements of Style" is still in print. I highly recommend it.


When I finish a piece I read it several times correcting typos and grammatical errors and eliminating unnecessary words. If I am writing for the cash, I rewrite four or five times. After I cut out all the deadwood, I might do an outline -- yeah afterward! -- and rearrange the thoughts, add and delete and generally play around with the ideas that came to mind when I was creating. When time permits, I set the piece aside for a day or two and check it again. Mistakes I didn't see, jump out like neon signs.

Two kinds of writers ignore the rewrite. First, a few freaks like Isaac Asimov CAN sit down and whack out a bestseller without changing a word. (Even worse for us mere mortals, Isaac could type 85 wpm with few typos while he was doing it. Awesome!) Second, chumps who THINK they can write like Isaac Asimov. The rest of us self-edit extensively.

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