Letter Writer's Style Guide / by Chris Donald
Incorporating the following guidelines in your letters to the editor (LTEs) will greatly increase your chances of publication as well as help improve MAPs image of striving to present high quality accurate information on topics of drug policy:
All sentences should have simple structures and be brief. If a sentence can be easily written as two sentences, it should be.
Always use the spell checker, and do a visual check for the to/too and from/form typos the spell checker will miss.
Letters should be no more than 1 to 1 1/2 pages long, and the shorter the better. This length restriction can be stretched for magazines or papers that you know agree with your POV, but with our efforts the latter will be rare.
Paragraphs are usually only one or two sentences long, with maybe one three sentence paragraph per full page. Look at any front page news story, and you'll see exactly what I mean.
The lead sentence should not be more than 70 words long, should contain the name of the article or letter you are responding to, and a position on that article. If you come up with a witty one liner, you can use it as your lead, as that is where it will have a chance to catch an editor's eye. Remember that editors are themselves writers who appreciate a clever use of words. If you do this, then include the name of the article (or subject) you are responding to either as a title (re. blah blah) or in the second sentence/paragraph.
A quote or cite soon after the lead sentence is a good idea. A cited fact or quote will give your opinion a broader context, and most journalist/editors would publish your letter for the cite alone if they are impressed by its pertinence to the subject. Buckley's always good for a quote, and any scientific studies that are relevant could be used as well.
If you are using cites to back yourself up, put them before your own opinion. I've seen too many letters go by that have a good intro, then a few obvious pro-drug opinions, and then a good cite. You want the editor to see the cite and then the bulk of your opinions, as they are scanning dozens of letters and are quick to stop reading anything that strikes them as from the fringe. Also, don't waste words restating what you've cited. Draw a conclusion or apply it to the subject of your letter, but don't restate it. Redundancy of any sort will invite the editor to move on to the next letter, or worse, edit lines out of your letter.
If you find yourself writing way too much prose, don't worry. You'll notice that most journalists sacrifice flow in order to put the most important point first, second-most second, etc. Editors won't even notice if you take what you think is your best line/paragraph and tack it in first, take your second best line and tack it in next, etc, until you hit 200 words. Use the cut and paste capabilities of your word processor, and don't worry if you leave a lot of prose out of this letter. There is always the next one. Also, if you are using more than one quote, cut and paste them in with an opinion, paraphrase, or other prose between them. Two or more separate quotes in a row does not look good. If a quote is really long, consider cutting out part of it, or quoting half and then paraphrasing the rest (He also said....).
In general: the ideal letter is three to six short paragraphs long, with a short, witty lead sentence (that is usually a stand alone paragraph), a good quote up high in the prose, and some clear, pointed opinions to finish. Be concise, and use tight, no nonsense prose without colloquialisms. If you quote or closely paraphrase the points you are responding to in your letter, it makes your points look a little clearer. Flip to the editorial page of whatever newspaper you are responding to, and use the letters that paper's editor[s] choose to publish as a template for your own.
Try to avoid using phrases coined by WoD propaganda: People are not "drug abusers," they are "people who choose to use currently prohibited substances" or "users of recreational drugs other than caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol" or "people who party with substances less harmful than alcohol" or even just "cannabis smokers." I don't want every writer quoting these, so try to make up your own. Every time you find yourself calling pot "drugs" and pot smokers "drug users," realize that you are attaching the baggage of a lot of WoD propaganda to your prose, and try to write around it creatively.
Use and advertise the Drug Library at http://www.druglibrary.org/ for your cites and to let newspapers know it exists. This also adds credibility to your letter. An often used closing after the signature is:
"Researchers and reporters are welcome at the worlds largest online library of drug policy information at http://www.druglibrary.org/"
An Incomplete List of points worth touching on in your first letter:
Outside of mentioning the fact that there are no deaths attributable to cannabis consumption ever, I think you should just pick a few of the above and allude to them. If you try to mention more than a couple, it will really make your letter either too long, or too much like a grocery list. And if you are already an experienced writer do your own thing. There will be enough writers influenced by my posts to cause some suspicious overlap, so it is actually a good thing to completely ignore everything I say.
PS. I was a journalist before my disability and chronic pain syndrome, and
I've actually had to edit LTE's as part of my job at one paper I worked at.
Make them brief. It works.
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