YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE
by Ted Carroll
When I first became editor of a daily newspaper, I played up Letters to the Editor. My favorite journalism professor had preached their power, and I further convinced myself when I wrote-by accident-a term paper about the power of letters.
At the campus library to select a topic, I saw a woman I knew making notes from a big book, and asked what she was doing.
"I'm writing a paper on the Depression," she said. "This Town-send Plan was really something. Everybody over 60 was to get $200 a month, a fortune in those days, and had to spend it the month they got it. It was supposed to put everybody back to work, and a two percent national sales tax would pay for it."
"Sounds goofy-" I broke off as, glancing at the page, I caught the words "Letters to the Editor." "Let me see this a moment." I picked up the book. It was open to the page where reformer Dr. Francis Everett Townsend outlined his plan January 1, 1934. I read: "An onslaught of Letters to the Editor praising the 'wonderful Townsend Plan' flooded California newspapers and soon spread across state lines, across the nation. Townsend Plan clubs were formed in city after city. In November of that year, candidates supporting the plan were sent to Washington in droves."
Bills to enact the plan never quite made it but created so much pressure on Congress that less than two years after Dr. Townsend made his speech-and Letters to the Editor took over-Congress enacted an alternate plan, Social Security.
All accounts at the time credited Townsend's plan with pressuring Congress to take action. And Letters to the Editor played a role in creating that pressure.
I had my term paper topic. (I never liked lengthy research.)
Now, many years later, I am writing a book about the role of Letters based upon the experience of hundreds of editors nationwide. The results on state, local and individual levels are often amazing. Quick examples:
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You can still use Letters to the Editor to air and perhaps solve problems.
Here, based on my experience in handling hundreds of thousands of Letters, are a dozen guidelines:
1. It's easy. Many newspapers now accept Letters not only by regular mail, but by phone mail, fax or E-mail. Before you dial your paper's phone mail number to record, first observe (2) and (3) below.
2. Follow the rules. If the paper says "200 words or less," c-o-u-n-t. If "Letters must include a name, address and daytime and evening phone numbers," supply them. If "must concern a single topic," observe that or your letter will probably be chucked.
3. Work, work, work on your Letter. Professional writers don't write well; they rewrite well. Keep it brief. The fewer words, the more effective your hit. If writing, type neatly. If calling in, have your script before you.
4. Never on Monday! Often the weekend's mail arrives at an editor's desk on Mondays in grocery bags. Letters received on other days get quicker, less harassed attention. Conversely, holiday seasons and the summer doldrums are low-Letter times; editors especially welcome Letters during the lengthy Christmas season.
5. Get attention quickly. A writer who'd returned from a cross-country motor trip began: "I too support hiring the mentally handicapped--but must we put them to work marking our nation's highways?" Who could put that Letter down as the writer detailed frustrating experiences?
6. Don't stoop to name-calling. Don't say "Senator Joe is a jerk"-even if he is. Attack ideas, not personalities.
7. "Replies" are welcome. Most editors I know lean over backwards to print Letters opposing their own views. Readers like to see other readers "give the editor heck!" I chuckled as I wrote this headline: "Editor Called 'Avaricious Nincompoop'!"
8. Use humor it you can. I'll never forget a Letter from a right-to-bear-arms advocate, after a lunatic had tried to destroy Michelangelo's Pieta with a hammer. Here's his Letter:"A madman with a hammer has smashed one of the Vatican's most priceless pieces of art. Mankind must not tolerate this and the solution is obvious: 'Ban hammers!'"
9. Identify your background when relevant. If you're an expert, i.e., a doctor writing on a health matter or engineer on an energy issue, state your authority.
10. Letters written from the heart can be most effective. Would you pay more attention to: (a) a safety expert quoting statistics on drunken-driving fatalities or (b) a mother whose high-achieving son has been made a brain-destroyed invalid for life?
11. Pay special attention to your conclusion. Your last line should be your punch line. It's the thought likely to linger in the reader's mind.
12. I know I said it before, but I repeat: Be brief. You'll hit harder. The ultimate brevity is probably a Letter I printed decades ago when Teddy Kennedy was seeking the Democratic nomination. This two-line walloper, in entirety:
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It is likely some Grand Times readers wrote letters 62 years ago supporting the Townsend Plan, or remember that your parents or grandparents did. If so, please drop me a note (P.O. Box 2572, Ormond Beach, FL 32175), and include your telephone number. I'm trying to get first-person quotes for the Letters book I'm writing.
About the author: Since "retirement," Ted Carroll has published some 120 short stories in a score of magazines and several anthologies, plus a first collection, many articles, and a first nonfiction book, Live Debt-Free.