Writing About Youth Sports in Newspaper Letters-to-the-Editor (Part II)
Last week, Part I encouraged parents, coaches, and even youth leaguers themselves to write about youth sports in letters-to-the-editor to local, regional and national newspapers. The article began sketching a roadmap to the editorial pages with five initial steps. Part II now discusses how to polish and submit the letter, and it ends with a sample.
6. Focus thinking. Because newspapers generally restrict letters to a maximum of only about 200 words, the New York Times advises writers to “[m]ake one argument thoroughly, point by point; the more detail the better. . . . If you try to do too much, you can wind up . . . saying nothing.”
7. Take a position. Letters appear on the opinion pages, so editors tend to favor statements of opinion rather than free-form essays. The Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, wants “vigorous, clear argumentation within the confines of the short essay – the voices of well-informed, opinionated citizens speaking to others in the widest possible forum.”
8. Reason and passion. Letters-to-the-editor should speak forthrightly and with dignity. Dignified writing does not mean toothless writing, but most newspapers reject letters laden with innuendo, insults, sarcasm, or defamation. “It’s fair to criticize the ideas or arguments of others,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch instructs, “but we don’t allow name-calling.” Letters that spew venom and bile usually get a quick “delete” because busy editorial staffs do not have the time or inclination to phone writers and negotiate about civility.
Youth sports often engages passions, and letter writers sometimes react in the heat of the moment. A brief “cooling-off period” may allow reason to temper passion. If you sense that your draft letter skates near the edge, ask a spouse, friend or colleague to review it for tone and content. Even if the letter seems finished late in the day, sleep on it overnight before hitting the “Send” key. Anything the newspaper’s editorial staff can do with the letter late in the afternoon, it can do first thing the next morning.
9. Public interest. Letters reach hundreds or thousands of readers, and editors have a feel for what will strike a chord with their mass audience. A submitted letter does not stand much chance of publication, for example, if it merely tries to score points about a private spat between a parent and a coach.
10. Good writing and brevity. The Chicago Tribune advises that letters that are “succinct rather than rambling, and that are factually accurate, stand the best chance of being selected for publication.” Papers normally reserve the right to edit for length, accuracy or clarity, but editors may recoil from doing a major rewrite. Rejection is easier.
“The writing must be clear and accessible to the general reader,” says the Wall Street Journal. Proper grammar, punctuation, spelling and syntax are essential.
Brevity is best. The Boston Globe, for example, advises that “[t]he best way to increase the chance of having your letter chosen is to make it timely, original, and short!” “Be ready to be edited,” warns the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Our first concern is to preserve the essential voice, style, and viewpoint of each author, but . . . [s]pace wins every time.”
Even if a newspaper imposes a 200-word maximum limit on letters, writers who weigh in at, say, 150 words improve their chances of publication. Brevity also helps engage the paper’s readers, who might scan the editorial pages while they are on the go, unable to devote undivided attention for very long. The prime goal of any writer is to finish before the reader finishes.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch founder Joseph Pulitzer stated four ground rules for newspaper writing: “Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.”
11. Cutting for brevity. The newspaper’s maximum word limit requires self-discipline. Even for writers thrilled by the sound of their keyboards and the sight of their words, cutting usually improves initial drafts. This 23-word sentence, for example, might open a draft letter about youth sports: “It is with great disappointment that I read about the decision of the city council to reduce the budget of the parks department.” Cutting this bloated sentence in half is easy:
Delete “throat-clearing.” Nobody cares about the writer’s great disappointment, and everybody knows that the writer read about the budget cutting. Get to the point: “The decision of the city council to reduce the budget of the parks department is wrong.” The sentence now consists of 16 words, but why stop here?
Use possessives: “The city council’s decision to reduce the parks department’s budget is wrong.” Twelve words and still counting down.
Keep cutting: “The city council is wrong to reduce the parks department’s budget.” Final sentence: 11 words, less than half the original length. The writer now has 12 more words to bolster the argument later in the letter. The result is clearer and more readable, and writer and reader both win.
12. The supporting materials. A submitted letter begins “Dear Editor” and requires no other cover letter. The writer’s introductory paragraph, however, should crisply summarize the earlier article or event that prompts the letter. Readers may not immediately recall it, but lengthy summaries unnecessarily consume the newspaper’s tight word limit.
Most newspapers require the letter writer’s name as it should appear in the paper, plus the writer’s mailing address, email address, and phone numbers. This identifying information enables the editorial staff to call and verify the writer’s authorship, and perhaps also to seek needed clarifications. Newspapers usually do not publish the writer’s identifying information, except for the hometown.
Below the writer’s name and contact information, the submission should include a one-sentence statement of the writer’s credentials, if they are relevant to the letter’s subject (for example, “Sam Smith is president of the X Youth Soccer League.”) Even if the paper does not publish the statement beneath the letter, the statement may lend an aura of expertise that impresses the editorial staff who screen submissions. For a distant newspaper, recite a connection to the newspaper’s market area if possible.
13. Persistence pays. Newspapers reject plenty of publishable letters for reasons unrelated to quality or content. The paper, for example, may recently have run letters on the writer’s topic and may now seek commentary on other issues. The paper simply may not have room for today’s letter.
If the letter concerns incidents likely to happen again (such as acts of parental violence or acts of sportsmanship), save the letter for resubmission next time, when space limits and other circumstances might be different. Newspaper letter writing may require patience and perseverance following initial rejection. As a successful writer named William Shakespeare said, “all’s well that ends well.”
Joining the Discussion About Youth Sports
“[G]ood letters to the editor,” says CNN correspondent Wolf Blitzer, “are indeed widely read by public-opinion molders, and they’re very significant.” One blogger acknowledges that “[a] published letter to the editor probably has 1,000 times the readership and impact of a comment on a blog.” Journalists regularly report that “[l]etters are one of the most popular, widely read parts of the newspaper because people like to know what their neighbors are thinking.”
Letter writers continue to compete for space on the nation’s editorial pages because they know that readers pay attention. Coaches, parents, and youth leaguers can make their voices heard with letters that help shape discussion about youth sports.
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A Sample Letter
To illustrate what newspapers look for, here is my 85-word letter that appeared in the Kansas City Star in June of 2011, soon after the Detroit Tigers’ Armando Galarraga pitched his near-perfect game, which was spoiled only when the first base umpire erroneously called the 27th Cleveland Indians hitter safe after an infield grounder, an error that the umpire later acknowledged. (The letter evidently did not persuade any baseball writers or anyone in Major League Baseball!).
“To the editor:
Regardless of what happens the rest of this season, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga deserves serious consideration for the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award.
With his graceful reaction to the umpire’s admittedly incorrect ninth-inning call that deprived him of a perfect game and baseball immortality earlier this month, Galarraga set a sterling example of sportsmanship and respect for the game that will itself grow immortal.
After years of steroids scandals and other embarrassments, nothing could be more valuable to Major League Baseball than that.
Douglas E. Abrams
[Sources: Douglas E. Abrams, Trading In the Marketplace of Ideas: Letters-to-the Editor and Op-Ed Articles – Parts I and II, Precedent (The Missouri Bar’s quarterly magazine) (Fall 2008 and Winter 2009); David Firestone, Israel Occupies the Op-Eds, Newsday, Jan. 11, 1988, at 3; John K. Wilson, How to Write a Letter to the Editor, ObamaPolitics.com (Aug. 3, 2008); Wanted: Pen Pals With Opinions, Dallas Morning News, Jan. 5, 2005, at 4B]