When to Write a Letter to the Editor versus an Op-Ed
Writing a letter to the editor (LTE) or an op-ed is a great way to energize branch members, promote AAUW visibility in the community, and spread the word about important issues. These media outreach tools can be used to correct and clarify facts in a previous news story, oppose or support the actions of an elected official or agency, direct attention to a problem, spur news editors to cover an issue that is being overlooked, or urge readers to support your cause. Letters to the editor and op-eds are especially effective in local community papers. But what exactly are they, and how do you know which mode of outreach is right for your goals?
Letters to the Editor
Letters to the editor are usually written in direct response to an article, editorial, op-ed, or column that the target paper has printed. They can also be a reaction to or notification of a newsworthy event. They are printed on the editorial page, one of the most-read pages in the paper, making them an effective way of reaching a large audience in the community. Letters to the editor are also more likely to get published than an op-ed and can be published in a quicker turnaround than an op-ed. An LTE may be the best choice for your content if
- Your topic has been mentioned in the paper recently, especially on the opinion page.
- You have just one or two points that can be succinctly stated.
- You can write a response to the topic mentioned in the paper within one to two days (LTEs have a faster publishing turnaround).
Op-eds (or “opposite editorial”) are articles devoted to commentary, feature articles, and opinions. Authors are not officially affiliated with the newspaper and can range from state legislators to local business owners and interested local citizens, like AAUW members! Op-eds must be approved by the editorial page or opinion page editor and will also be cleared by a copy editor. Editors usually put together their editorial calendars the month before, so getting your desired column into the paper without a newsworthy hook can be challenging. An op-ed may be a viable option for your desired content if
- Your topic will be of interest to most of the paper’s readers.
- You have something new, interesting, or unexpected to say.
- You are writing about a larger theme that will not fit into 150 words or less.
- Your piece will be relevant in a few weeks’ time (op-eds have a longer lead time before publishing).
- You are willing to pitch your piece to the editors.
Tips on effective letters to the editor and op-eds
Research the guidelines.
Most papers have a length limit on LTEs and op-eds. LTEs are usually 250 words or less. Op-eds are usually around 700 words, though this varies by outlet. Also find out where to submit your content (typically via e-mail or through an online form).
Pick a timely topic and find a local angle.
Readers are more interested in an issue when they see how it affects their lives and communities.
Do not assume that your readers are informed on your topic. Give a concise but informative background before plunging into the main issue. If you are responding to a specific newspaper article or editorial, reference it by date and title.
Identify yourself as part of AAUW.
Most papers prefer printing opinion articles written by a local authority or community leader. Signing your LTE or op-ed as an AAUW office holder or member with expertise on the topic may make it more likely to be chosen.
Clarify your expertise.
Someone with a closer-than-normal perspective on the issue is an expert. This may include a local lawyer discussing the impact of a Supreme Court nomination or a teacher discussing how cuts in education translate into the day-to-day situation in her classroom. You should submit your content not only as an AAUW member but also according to your personal experience and expertise.
Avoid form letters.
Do not send the same letter to two competing papers in the same circulation area or many copies of an identical letter to a single paper.
Close with a call to action.
Encourage your state legislature to pass stronger equal pay legislation! Tell your senators and representatives in Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. You should tailor that call to the topic you’re writing about.
Edit your document.
Have some fresh eyes review it for the requirements above. Make your writing concise, clear, and conversational. AAUW staff are available to help proof your LTE or op-ed if requested; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow up for op-eds.
It is vital to call the paper after an op-ed is submitted to verify that the opinion page editor received your e-mail and to pitch your topic in order to increase interest. With larger papers, you might want to wait a day after submitting. With smaller papers, you can call within a couple hours. For more on developing your contact list and pitching, read our guide for working with the media. LTEs do not require a follow-up.
- Throw a party to write letters to the editor! Gather branch members to learn about an issue and write letters to your local paper. This way, you’ll support one another through the writing process and increase the likelihood that your letters will be published.
- Incorporate letters to the editor into your existing activities. For example, if you are hosting a speaker on school vouchers, ask everyone to write a letter to the editor about a state school voucher bill after the presentation.
- Team up on op-eds! Have a unique perspective on an issue but want to add that extra oomph? Op-eds can have shared bylines. Work with other advocacy organizations to really drive your point home. Team up with someone who has her own story of facing unequal pay. Brainstorm ways that a joint op-ed can help your article gets chosen and published.
April 4 is the day we “celebrate” when the typical woman working full time in the United States catches up to what a white man was paid the previous year. That’s right, making 80 cents to a man’s dollar means women must work three extra months! The pay gap is even worse for most women of color who have to work even longer for their salaries to catch up.
As a member of the American Association of University Women, I have worked tirelessly to urge legislative action to close the gender pay gap once and for all. But we need additional legislation to give employers and employees the tools to prevent wage discrimination in the first place — and we’ve been waiting too long for that.
In [state], women face a pay gap of [insert amount] cents, which translates into less money for feeding families, paying off student loans, and saving for retirement. Passing a federal law like the Paycheck Fairness Act would help protect everyone in all states. But until that happens, each state will continue operating under antiquated regulations and piecemeal state and local laws to combat unequal pay. As we wait for Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, [state] AAUW members, including myself, will continue to urge the state legislature to make improvements to [state] equal pay laws so that fair pay is an accessible reality for everyone. I encourage all [what state residents are called, e.g., Washingtonians] to join us and demand equal pay now!
Title IX is about more than sports for girls — it prohibits all sex discrimination in U.S. schools. For example, we’ve seen high-profile Title IX cases about preventing sexual harassment and violence. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that some of the most egregious and harmful Title IX violations occur when schools fail to designate a Title IX coordinator or when a Title IX coordinator does not have the training or authority to oversee compliance with Title IX.
The AAUW [branch name] recently reached out to local schools to see how they are monitoring and enforcing Title IX. We wanted to ensure that our local schools have designated Title IX coordinators who have the resources they need to enforce this critical civil rights law.
[Describe branch outreach efforts.]
The AAUW [branch name] encourages parents, students, and community members to learn more about Title IX and to contact their schools to ensure that Title IX coordinators are identified and have the resources they need to address sex discrimination in our schools.
Resources to guide activists in advocacy efforts.
Connecting with your elected officials about AAUW issues in a face-to-face meeting is a great way to develop a relationship with them and influence their positions.
Social media can have tremendous rewards for your state and branch advocacy efforts if you’re creative and persistent.