unit 4 the written word

Here we are, unit 4 already! I hope that you are learning and getting something out of the units so far. How did you like Unit 3?


Unit 1: Find, don’t force your passion.

Unit 2: a review of civics and government

Unit 3: using the internet and accessing information to educate yourself

So here we are at Unit 4-the power of the written word. We are going to discuss a few different types of writing:

  • letters to the editor and op/ed
  • letters to legislators
  • social media

First, a few notes about grammar and overall writing style. It is important. Remember that you want to be taken seriously and appear informed on the issues, and grammar plays a role in that. Your writing is a reflection of you. How well you present yourself in your writing will help determine your effectiveness. For example, I have a Facebook friend who obviously loathes President Obama, as is his right to do so. However, rather than smartly point out policy failures or decisions that he disagrees with….it’s just a bunch of status updates with f-bombs that at time are borderline racist. I would not call that effective advocating for a cause. You want to be taken seriously, not make people cringe.


You do not have to be a trained writer or a professional writer. Practice will help you. Reading also helps you. Depending on what type of writing you are working on, read some examples such as good letters to the editor and good op/ed pieces. But overall, if you are going to be an effective advocate (and this is an area where I struggle myself!) you have to remember that every piece of writing that you put out there for all to see is a reflection of you. I have found myself recently embroiled in a few Facebook debates myself and I wish I could stay away. It’s hard! When you are passionate about something, it is hard to keep quiet and not get amped up sometimes. But you want to present yourself as the logical, calm, voice of reason in the storm. Yelling and screaming and cursing at foes on Facebook is not the way to accomplish that.

If you are excited about something, maybe a piece of legislation that passed or did not pass, or a timely current event, I try to follow the “sleep on it” rule. That is, I write a letter or a blog post, and if it is really heavy and written when I was really mad about something, I sleep on it. Read it the next day, and decide if it is good to send at all, as is, or with some editing. In this day and age of “instant everything” we often feel compelled to respond right away. Learning patience is part of this too, if you are a naturally impatient person. Ok, let’s move on.

Letters to the Editor and Op/Ed pieces to your newspaper

Part of being an effective advocate is winning others over to your point of view. One way to reach people is via the newspaper and letters to the Editor. For these two types of writing, you definitely want to put your best foot forward. Look online to see what their submission guidelines are. Some have word minimums and maximums. If they do not, I would say 300-500 words. I have been told at several different workshops that at 500 words, people start to tune out. You want to use the best grammar and spelling, so have someone check your work. You want to state your issue in three parts:

Part 1: Define the problem and tell people how it affects them. “In the year 2000, measles was eradicated from the United States. Now due to some states allowing philosophical exemptions to vaccines, we are seeing the worst measles outbreak in decades. Some parts of California and Oregon have vaccination rates lower than African countries. Measles is a highly-contagious airborne disease, and most American babies are not vaccinated for it until they are 12-18 months old. Due to parents choosing to not vaccinate, babies who are too young for the vaccine are put at risk.”

Part 2: Define what you think is a credible solution. “Senator Feinstein of California has introduced a bill that would repeal and no longer allow parents to not vaccinate their children based on philosophical exemptions. Several doctors in California are no longer seeing non-vaccinated patients so that other patients are not put at risk.”

Part 3: The call to action. “Call Senator Feinstein and tell her that you support this bill and thank her for introducing it. Call Your Senator and tell him that you wish for him to co-sponsor this bill. Tell your House Rep that you wish for them to vote YES on this bill. Call your doctor and tell them thank you for putting your child’s safety first. A newborn going for a well checkup should not be exposed to the measles.”

And then a sentence or two for a summary.

Get the idea? Of course, going back to Unit 3 and educating yourself, you would look up Senator Feinstein’s bill and see who has signed on as a co-sponsor and so on. I’m just writing this up based on some headlines that I saw coming out of California. If this was a very local paper, I would include names and phone numbers to make it easy for people. Of course it would be a bit longer, aiming for 300-500 words.

Op/ed pieces

Op/ed pieces are a little bit of a different beast. Generally you have to be either famous or well-renowned or an expert in your field to get a published op/ed. For example, I just did a quick search for the op-eds in today’s New York Times. The headlining one was written by Joe Biden. Elizabeth Warren has published many, as has Bill Gates. Looking at local papers, one of ours was written by a local school district superintendent.

I have had one published and it was in the Unionville Times and the Chester County Press-The time is now to reform Special Education Funding. This isn’t to toot my own horn, but in this area, I had been lobbying for years as well as working in the field, plus those are small town newspapers. Compared to many people in my local community, I probably do know more about the funding structure. It’s my passion!

You can read the op/ed piece there and see that it follows the format listed above. I gave a history of the legislation, how it affects our local communities and then my call to action. Back to Unit 3 and educating yourself–you want to make sure that your legislature is in session! If you are published and asking people to make calls and it’s the last week of December…what do you think is going to happen? Timing is everything so you want them to be called when they are in session and working. (Granted, that’s not a lot. Zing!)

Other tips to help you get your letters published:

  • Look online to see if they post a suggested length for the letter, and stick to it.
  • If you use statistics or facts, cite them. Hyperlink it so that the editors don’t have to go searching for it, much more likely to publish.
  • An added tip that I’m sure helped to get me published–I had help. That’s right, remember when I said to align yourself and partner with non-profits that resonate with you? That’s what I did. I contacted the media person at a non-profit with my draft and they cleaned it up for me. There’s no shame in getting help–we can’t solve the world’s problems by ourselves. They got to promote their message coming from an ordinary citizen (which papers love) and I had a better written piece. Win-win!

One final word about writing letters or op-eds: You should have an actionable item. So if there is no current legislation pending that supports your cause, you still need an action item. So instead of “call your people and tell them to vote YES on HB 1234” you would instead state something like “I urge you to call or write to your legislators and tell them that you want them to make fair education funding a priority.”

10 tips for writing letters to Legislators

Writing to your legislators is just one way to let them know how you feel about an issue. Here are some tips:

    1. Use your best spelling and grammar as to appear professional and rationale.
    2. Personally, I think that the online forms on their websites is the least personable and least desirable way to submit a letter. If that is your only option, it’s a starting point. But I would then do an in-person visit first (more on that in future units) and get a business card with an actual email address. An actual email to an email address is preferred, in my opinion.
    3. I have had several legislators tell me that the handwritten notes mean the most to them.
    4. I have had several legislators tell me that they can instantly recognize a form letter that was sent out by some non-profit. If you are going to use this as your outline, great. But personalize it!
    5. I personally would not write to my legislator more than 3-4x a year (to write about issues). More than that looks stalker-ish to me. If you visit, you always follow up with a thank you note, so that may increase your overall total.
    6. Only write to either thank them for something or to voice an opinion about pending legislation. Have a point to the communication–don’t write a litany of complaints and issues, be specific.
    7. When legislature is in session and busy, I send them to the Capitol offices. If they are on break, I send to local offices. I’ve never seen any written recommendations on what is best.
    8. Do not be offended if you hear back from a staffer rather than the legislator. It’s very common.
    9. Sometimes I have my kids sign the notes or I include a picture of them.
    10. Always include something positive, no matter how hard it is to find common ground. Even if this person has voted opposite of what you wanted on everything, find something. “Hey, I saw your cat on your Facebook page. I have a cat.” Something, anything…but not just complaining or disagreeing all the time. Again, Unit 3–do your research and find something. Use it to make a point, for example: “Certainly as a recreational hiker, you understand the importance of preserving our environment…” or “Certainly as a parent, you understand how much bullying/drunk driving/weapons background checks/texting while driving concerns parents…”

Ok, you know what your assignments are, don’t you?

    • 1. Write a letter to the editor or an op-ed….and SUBMIT them.
    • 2. Write a letter to your legislator…..and SEND it.

unit 4 the written word
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