One of the questions I’m asked most often is: “What can I do personally to move the term limits effort forward?”
Signing the USTL petition is important; as is asking your legislators to sign our term limits amendment pledge. But another very effective tool for activists is the letter to the editor. Even in our digital age, newspapers are the source people rely on most for news about politics and government. Most have made the successful transition to an online format, and letters to the editor remain an important aspect of that content.
Here are five tips an activist can use to write a top notch letter. They’re applicable to both local papers and national outlets like the New York Times.
1. If possible, respond to a recent article in the newspaper.
The letters with the best chance of getting published directly address a subject the newspaper has covered recently. Most of the time, however, this rule will not keep a more general letter from making it in. Congressional misbehavior is often a great tie-in for term limits. Even if the paper hasn’t run a term limits story in a while, a congressman abusing the public trust can be the perfect lead-in.
2. Pick a single topic, and stay focused on it.
Sticking with one topic keeps the letter concise, but it also leaves the reader with a clear and defined idea of how to take action. Examples of topics for a term limits letter are:
- “Ask Representative XXXXX to co-sponsor term limits bill HJR 41 (SJR 2)”
- “Sign the U.S. Term Limits Citizen Petition Today”
- “Support eight-year term limits instead of 12”
With a simple call to action, the letter will do a better job inspiring concrete action.
3. Be able to verify all the facts you use.
In a term limits letter, each fact will be scrutinized by the editorial staff. When accuracy is made a priority, the letter can find its way into print faster and make the strongest possible argument. I recommend including a link to the facts and figures at the very bottom of the letter. Never assume that the editorial staff has the same awareness on this issue that you do.
4. Use everyday language and avoid jargon.
I have a friend who, after writing a letter to the editor, would pull out a thesaurus to replace his adjectives with bigger and “better” words. The end result was something that may have looked good in the Harvard faculty lounge, but didn’t make any sense to the average reader. There’s never a need to go overboard on word choice in a letter. Simple and understandable language does the best job connecting with the audience.
Also be sure to avoid political “jargon” — the words used by insiders that have no relevance to most people. Examples of this are “Blue Dog Democrat,” “Pork Barrel,” and “Trial Balloon.” They’re good terms to know, but they don’t improve a letter written for a mass audience.
5. No name-calling
“Congressman Johnston is a jerk!”
It may be right and true in many cases, but a letter is not the right place to insult your opponents. Readers who agree with a persuasive argument may be less inclined to take action if they believe the debate is about people rather than issues.
Thanks for reading. If you have any comments or questions, shoot me a quick email using our contact form.
Nick Tomboulides is the Executive Director of U.S. Term Limits