Your mother was right: You should write more often. A well-crafted letter can increase support for an important issue in your home town or let public officials know you and others in your neighborhood are looking for change.
Letters show people care deeply—the more letters sent supporting your cause, the better. “Ten handwritten letters with personalized notes on a specific issue would have a pretty significant impact on a councilperson,” says Dan Pontious, the executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, Baltimore.
What to include
Want your letters to have impact? Personalize them. Officials judge how much you really care about a topic by the effort you put into contacting them. An original letter trumps a form letter with your signature, which trumps signing a petition.
Email is valuable too, especially when it’s original rather than a cut-and-paste form letter. A printed, stamped letter coming into the office might catch officials’ attention a bit more than an email, but the main factor is that they know the writer cares enough to author a personal note.
Getting others to join you in a letter-writing campaign expands your influence. A flurry of letters on a topic gives decision makers a clear indication there’s a group of people who want to see change, be it less graffiti in the neighborhood or more after-school programs.
Whether you’re writing to the local paper’s editorial page, an elected official, or other community members, follow these seven steps to great letters:
1. Explain why you care about the issue. You want speeders to slow down because a child was hit by a car last month.
2. Keep it simple. Write in a conversational style.
3. Focus on one topic. If you’re writing about the need for a new library branch, don’t also write about cars speeding on your block.
4. Don’t just complain; support a specific proposal. Ask officials to add a quarter-acre park at 123 Main St., not to increase recreational facilities everywhere.
5. Keep it short. Make your case in three to five paragraphs totaling no more than one page. Keep letters to the editor below 250 words.
6. If you can, include facts and data. This will support your cause.
7. Be polite, even if you’re angry at how things have gone to date.
What are the negatives to writing a letter? You could end up being unsuccessful, or upsetting those who disagree with you. But then again, those are pitfalls for standing up for anything you would like to see changed.
Need more help? We’ve written three sample letters—one to a local official, one to the editor of a local newspaper, and one that could be left in local residents’ mailbox—as a guide. There are many ways to write an effective letter, so don’t feel you have to use the exact style here.
Sample letter to local official
Dear Commissioner Johannson:
I’m writing to ask the city to add a new stop sign on Littlefield Road at Mayne Road. [Short indication of the purpose of the letter]
My family has lived at 1225 Littlefield for seven years. We have two young children and a dog, and speeding cars on the street are very dangerous. Because of the traffic, we don’t feel comfortable letting our 8-year-old son play alone in the front yard, even though it’s a quiet residential block and we know all the neighbors. [Personal connection to the issue]
The intersection is also dangerous for drivers. Mayne is a busy street, and cars coming from Littlefield have a hard time seeing around the bend to the north. Police department records show that there have been six auto accidents at the intersection over the last two years. [Data to support your argument]
When the Falling Waters development was built in 2005, it added a lot of cars on Mayne Road. Our community has added 6,000 residents in the last decade, according to Census figures. Traffic should come to a complete stop on Littlefield. [Facts and explanation of why the change is needed]
I know that you have been responsive to resident issues in the past, and I hope that you will support this request. With your leadership and support for a stop sign at Littlefield and Mayne, our neighborhood will have the appropriate traffic control for today’s conditions. Thank you for listening. [Polite call for action]
Sample letter to the editor
The Town of Finkston should invest in the planned addition to the Gatewood Community Center in the Basston Park neighborhood. [Short indication of the purpose of the letter]
The current community center is very popular. My family regularly uses the center for play dates, local meetings, and nature walks in the fall. The site is such an asset to our community that it often is overcrowded, and courses such as the basket-weaving class fill up immediately. [Personal connection to the issue]
When I called this afternoon, I learned that there is no room for public meetings over the whole month. [Data to support your argument]
The proposed addition is attractive and functional. Considering how much the current center is used, the cost to the town of $200,000 is a worthy investment in this major educational and cultural resource. [Facts and explanation of why the change is needed]
Sample letter to potential supporters
I am writing seeking your support for a plan to add “curb cuts” where the sidewalks connect to the streets in the Gottesman neighborhood. [Short indication of the purpose of the letter]
Gottesman was built in the 1920s, when taller curbs were the norm, so there are no curb cuts. In addition, the eastern edge of our neighborhood includes the commercial downtown, which we all enjoy as a place to walk around. For both these reasons, curb cuts would be very useful. [Facts and explanation of why the change is needed]
For our family, the impact would be great. My mother-in-law uses a wheelchair. When she visits our family, she finds it difficult to get to our house from her car and to come with us when we walk downtown to go shopping or to the park. With curb cuts, she will find it much easier to get around our community. I know that other residents in our community would benefit from curb cuts as well, including children with bikes, families with small children in strollers, and other residents and visitors who use a wheelchair. [Personal connection to the issue]
I have asked the City Commission about the process for adding curb cuts. In the City of Smitten, the commission must introduce an ordinance that would cover a specific set of streets. I would like to suggest that the 12345 Zip code, roughly covering Gottesman, would be an appropriate and cost-effective set of blocks.
My family and two others on the block—the Smiths and the Jones—are hoping there is community support for adding curb cuts. I hope that you will support our efforts. We are having a small, informal meeting to discuss the best way to make our case to the City Commission. We hope you can join us at Audubon Elementary School, 252 Augustus Boulevard, Room 56, on Friday, March 7 at 6 p.m. [Polite call for action]