Letters to the Editor

Almost any story can generate a letter to the editor; the key is to make sure that you use the opportunity to get the right messages in front of the right audience. As with any outreach tactic, letters to the editor offer a chance to advance your larger strategy, not just a chance to get into print. Below is an example of a letter published in the New York Times by PolicyLink founder Angela Glover Blackwell, along with some tips on how to create a successful letter.

Invitation to a Dialogue: Moving up in America 

Published: January 10, 2012

To the Editor:

Re: “Harder for Americans to Rise From Economy’s Lower Rungs” (front page Jan. 5): 

Reference the original piece. Letters are typically a reaction to a specific article and should reference it, including the headline and date. If the headline contains harmful frames and vocabulary that you don’t want to repeat, just refer to the story’s author and the date it ran. 

America’s stalled mobility is not only disheartening — it also challenges our sense of national identity and is a threat to economic prosperity. The Horatio Alger ideal that someone born poor can through hard work become rich
is the quintessential American promise. But for the most part it is a pipe dream. The same Pew study cited in the article shows that in the last generation only about 6 out of 100 poor children actually struck it big. 

Lead with values. The Value, Problem, Solution, Action formulation can be an effective structure for creating an effective and succinct letter to the editor. Here, Blackwell starts with the value of mobility and frames the problem as a threat to that deeply-held American value. 

“Movin’ on up” is especially hard for children born poor and black or poor and female. Black children of poor parents are half as likely as their white counterparts to become rich. They also face a much greater risk of slipping down the economic ladder: 45 percent of black children of solidly middle-income parents ended up poor compared with 16 percent of white children. And despite the enormous strides women have made in the world of work, daughters of poor families were more likely to remain poor than sons (47 and 35 percent respectively). Education and the neighborhood where a child grows up play a huge role in determining economic success, as does family background. 

Choose your points carefully.

Blackwell quickly introduces a few key societal factors that can cause the problem she has outlined. She uses strategically chosen facts to make her point that threats to mobility are often about more than class, and in fact affect middle- class communities of color more frequently than white communities.

Knowing that you have limited space in a letter to the editor, it’s important to ensure that every fact and argument is essential to building to your final ask. 

What can be done? We must strengthen community colleges where most poor children who get an education beyond high school do so; encourage partnerships between employers and community colleges; and improve economic opportunities in poor neighborhoods. 

Set the right tone. It’s important to be strategic about the tone of your letter. Here, Blackwell strikes a measured tone that is more likely to have an impact with persuadable audiences. Picture your target audience and gauge their likely knowledge of the issue. Write the letter with them in mind. 

To improve mobility we must get the American jobs machine working again creating the middle- class jobs that are the foundation of our nation’s greatness. 

Always include solutions. Here the author leaves readers with a positive, proactive idea for addressing the threats to mobility she has laid out, from concrete ideas about community colleges to a broader call for better middle class jobs. 

ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL Oakland, Calif. The writer is the founder and chief executive of PolicyLink, a nonprofit research and action institute that advances economic and social equity. 

Include any appropriate biographical information including specific expertise about, or relationship to, the issue.