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C&C Style Guide — Letters to Editors
New C&C writers should read this style guide carefully with tips on writing letters to editors.
New C&C writers should read this style guide carefully with tips on writing letters to editors. At the moment, the Writing Team’s goal is to hit every local and regional paper in the U.S. (and other countries as C&C’s scope permits). We’re ignoring the national papers for now. But not forever.
*General Comments about Letters to Editors*
Opinion sections editors have the same job that all the other editors do: get more eyes on the paper. So they will print opinions they disagree with — if the “letter” is well-written, entertaining, engaging, timely, and not politically offensive. So guess what I’m going to say your letter should look like?
It should be well-written, entertaining, engaging, and timely, and avoid pressing stereotypical buttons.
Most opinion editors are left-leaning with conservative values. In other words, they vocally and visibly support leftwing policies, but quietly believe in merit, hard work, and personal responsibility.
The audience for your letter is the opinion editor and the folks in the persuadable “middle third.” First you have to persuade the editor to print the letter. After that, our goal is to persuade the “middle third” to consider some new ideas.
The “middle third” includes people who consider themselves politically independent or moderate. Research shows they are willing to consider new arguments and will shift their support if convinced. Estimates of the “middle third” suggest they are between 30% and 40% of the U.S. population.
The left and right thirds cannot be persuaded to change their minds on any political issue or figure. The right is already persuaded, the left won’t change their minds no matter what.
We’ll be targeting one or two issues at a time with the goal of blanketing the country with a consistent message on the same issue.
*II. Appealing to the Opinion Editor*
Your first audience — the opinion editor of a local or regional paper — is mostly motivated by commercial incentives and the desire to put together a good, left-leaning “balanced” opinion section. But they will reject hyper-conservative screeds out of hand no matter how well-written or entertaining. So, the first key point is to avoid triggering the editor with conservative cliches or “dog whistles,” which is what they consider cliche’d conservative terms like “freedom,” “liberty,” “plandemic,” “scamdemic,” “justice” (absent one of the modifiers), and so forth.
I made this point once and offended a conservative who exclaimed, “we’re not ceding the words ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty!’” Yeah, I agree. My point is that conservatives often use these words as placeholders, as in “freedom rally,” and they’ve become cliches. Leftists are triggered by these cliches. A good writer avoids cliches anyway. So, instead of using “freedom,” use a more accurate and specific term like “medical autonomy,” or “inherent right to decide for ourselves,” if that’s what you mean.
Next, avoid explicit partisanship. Your choice of language and pitch should suggest you are a member of the middle third, which makes you more relatable to your audience.
Avoid name-calling. It’s better to use a sarcastic adjective, or even better, point out inconsistencies or the effect of error. So, for example, rather than calling Fauci an “abject failure,” describe him as the “controversial face of the administration, “embroiled in gain-of-function controversy,” “the “often inconsistent health agency director,” or “who has lost the confidence of many Americans.”
Only quote or cite mainstream sources, like the CDC, Walensky, published studies, the New York Times, WaPo, and so forth. The editor will be extremely skeptical of ANY conservative news outlet or pundit like Alex Jones. I’d even be very sparing about citing Fox or even The Epoch Times.
And remember: the most persuasive point is the one that comes from a trusted source on the reader’s own “side.”
*III. Persuading the Middle Third*
I’ll give you the main argument for each assignment, which is the idea we’re trying to persuade the audience about. So you won’t have to come up with that.
Keep in mind that your job is to PERSUADE, not prove a case. And your audience isn’t other conservatives. So your letter is an intentional construct, deliberately designed for a purpose, intended to speak to moderate liberals and independents who are wary of full-throated partisanship. Every element should serve the purpose of persuading that audience. Any element that interferes with that purpose should be cut.
If you can, include at least one point suggesting balance. Try to find SOMETHING. You might say something like, “Biden’s various missteps have unfortunately obscured the things the Administration’s gotten right.” However tiny those things might be. Evidencing balance reassures the audience that you are willing to give credit where it’s due. Concessions make you more trustworthy.
Similarly, avoid taking extreme positions, and instead hint at open-mindedness and a willingness to compromise. Moderates will do anything to avoid being labelled “extremists,” which to them means “closed minded.” So, don’t write something like, “They’ll have to kill me to jab me.” Instead, say something like, “I will take the vaccines when all of my questions and concerns have been resolved to my satisfaction, and not offensively dismissed as ‘hesitancy.’”
The latter evidences that you ARE, in fact, open-minded. (Even though we all know full well that the people pushing the shots will never stop and answer any real questions about them.)
Finally if you can find some historical, political, or scientific authority making one of your points, quote them instead of saying it in your voice. The quoted authority should be one that is trusted by the middle third. Appealing to authority is a logical fallacy, but it reassures the middle third that the proposition has social acceptance.
*IV. Elements of Persuasive Writing*
Aristotle famously defined the three elements of persuasive rhetoric: ethos, logos, and pathos. Try to work at least one point for each of Aristotle’s three prongs into your letter — the middle third responds to each of them.
Ethos is the moral/ethical point. For instance, “It isn’t fair to force parents to give their kids a drug with no long-term safety data; it puts them into an inescapable psychological pressure cooker.” Fairness is a simple moral argument that everyone can understand.
Logos represents the logical part of the argument. A logical argument is most simply expressed in three propositions: a thesis, a related fact, and a conclusion. For example, “A mandate only makes sense if a vaccine stops transmission. But with Omicron, the CDC agrees these vaccines don’t prevent transmission. So mandates are irrational.”
Pathos is the emotional heart of the matter, often expressed anecdotally. You might have noticed that when Congress holds hearings they always broadcast testimony of the victims or affected people, like they did with the Capitol police officers who were at the January 6 riot. An example for our purposes is, “While the CDC continues to deny that the shots harm anybody, young Maddie de Garay languishes in her wheelchair, permanently disabled, never to enjoy life as a normal teenager.”
A lot of conservatives over-focus on the Logos at the expense of the Ethos and Pathos. One great benefit of writing is that you can be intentional about making sure that all three elements show up somewhere.
*V. Logistical Issues*
Figure out which newspaper you want to submit a LTE to before you start writing. Understand and adhere to their requirements and suggestions about length, format, and so forth. If you go over the length, and they still publish it anyway, editors will typically just cut out a few paragraphs to get it within size. Inevitably, the stuff they cut will be your favorite part. It’s much better to just stay within the length to begin with.