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The recent American election — and subsequent backlash — has more people following politics than in recent memory. If you want to get involved, here’s how to write more effective letters to elected representatives…
I love getting questions from readers. Today’s comes from American Pam Weaver. She wrote me to ask, “Could you describe how to write a letter to your state or national representative?”
I’m a Canadian so I have no experience writing to American elected officials, but I imagine that politics operate in a similar fashion most everywhere — at least in the Western world — so here are the rules I follow when I have a complaint for one of my own elected officials:
1-Don’t use copy and paste methods for writing letters. If you’re taking part in a particular campaign, organizers may have a template they suggest you use. Know they are NOT doing this because the language is especially important — they’re doing it simply to encourage more people to write. This is because it’s far easier to copy than to create. But if you write something that’s original and personal, it will have a far greater impact than any form letter that organizers give you.
2-Be short and succinct. Think about what it would be like to be on the receiving end of several thousand letters each week. How could you (or more realistically, your staff) possibly read each one carefully? At best, your letter will get little more than a glance. For this reason, keep your letter to one page — and don’t make the font super small (nothing smaller than 11 point, please). And, keep the margins at standard size, not squeezed tight. If you’re writing an email, I’d keep it to 350 words.
3-Find out the best way to contact your representative, before you spend too much time on the task. Every politician will have an admin assistant who can be reached by phone or email. Contact this assistant and find out whether email or snail mail is the better approach for that person. (I’m just guessing here, but I imagine older people might prefer conventional mail and younger people, email.) Some may even prefer to be contacted by phone.
4-Consider your timing. Some times are better than others for having an impact on the decisions of elected officials. These include:
- Just before an election.
- Right before an important vote.
- Just before and in the midst of the budget process.
- Immediately after an official has done something you approve or disapprove of.
5-Figure out what leverage you have with this elected official. If you have voted for them in the past and their actions will put your vote at risk in the future, be sure to tell them that. Most politicians hate the idea of alienating voters. If it’s obvious that you’d never vote for them, even if hell froze over, then your argument is a bit harder to make. In that event, I’d suggest describing ways in which you are going to publicize your unhappiness with their actions: boycotts (if possible and/or feasible), marches, letter-writing campaigns etc. You need to be able to threaten the politician with some sort of action — withholding your vote or something else — in order to have an impact.
6-Use an effective structure for your letter or email. (a) Describe who you are and what you want. (If you’re writing about a specific piece of legislation, it’s helpful to give the bill number.) (b) Describe which and how many other people will be affected — statistics may be especially useful here. (c) Make three points that you feel present your arguments in the strongest possible light. (d) Tell a personal story about how this issue affects you and your family. (e) Use your leverage with the official (see point 5, above). And, while doing this be sure to mention any positive actions — ones you support — that the official has taken in the past and thank them for them. This will make you seem more open, more reasonable and less like a “crank.”
7-Take care of the details. Spell their name and title correctly and get the address right. No one wants to see their name spelled wrong and if you use the wrong address, your letter will never get to the intended recipient. Also, be sure to provide your own address, phone number and email.
If you’re unhappy about something your elected official is doing (or is failing to do), it’s your duty to communicate that news to them. After all, voting is only the very first step of getting involved in the political process and making a difference in your community.
My video podcast last week aimed to help a thesis writer who was struggling with procrastination. See it here and consider subscribing. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.
What’s your experience as a letter writer? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Feb. 28/17, will be put in a draw for a copy of Around the Writer’s Block, by Rosanne Bane. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.