GREEN LIVING ADVOCACY: DRAFTING AN EFFECTIVE LETTER TO THE EDITOR
By Wong Ee Lynn
(This blogpost has been published as a 3-part series in the Malaysian Nature Society monthly newsletter. All rights reserved by author alone.)
Much as Green Living is about sharing and disseminating information on environmentally responsible choices and putting these choices into daily practice, we must understand that lifestyle changes must go hand-in-hand with political advocacy. It is important to live a lifestyle that is consistent with our environmental values. It is hypocritical, for instance, to call for a ban on the construction of new dams when we fail to manage and reduce our water and energy use. But personal lifestyle changes alone cannot be a substitute for political action. As environmentalists and concerned citizens, we should all strive to keep ourselves informed on environmental issues and to be able to articulate our grievances and ideas in a way that is meaningful.
For many people who have never drafted a letter to the editor, this can seem like a daunting and time-consuming task. But like any other undertaking in life, a bit of planning, a fair amount of research and a good deal of determination is all it takes before you become a regular writer of letters to the editor. Letters to the editor vary greatly in quality. Some are forgotten almost as soon as they are read, some need to be refuted, some are impressive in their pomp and some are worth a second read. If you are a beginner, here are some basic pointers on how to draft a letter to the editor that is more likely to be published and therefore more likely to be read and considered by those with the political and economic leverage to make necessary changes:
1. HIT THE GROUND RUNNING WITH YOUR INTRODUCTION
If you are quoting a newspaper report, article or someone else’s letter to the editor, try not to start your letter with “I refer to your report, XXXX, dated XXXX” or a similarly predictable and bland opening line. Make a stand from the beginning. Let your reader know, in the same sentence that you are bringing their attention to another article, whether you are for or against the article you cited.
Examples of statements that express agreement include: “I concur with the views of…” and “I commend the XXX State Government for…”. Examples of statements that express disagreement include: “I was disappointed to read that the Federal Government has approved plans to....” and “The National Solid Waste Management Policy falls short of …”
If you are referring to a specific incident, for example, open burning or the felling of trees in your area, then start off your letter with a narration. Use the “5 Ws of Journalism” as a rough guide. In your introduction, address:
- What happened?
- Where did it take place?
- Who is it about/ Who does it affect/ Who witnessed it/ Who was responsible for the incident?
- When did it happen?
- How did it happen?
For example, following a reef clean-up project, you could start a letter thus: “Following a recent coral reef clean-up project off the coast of XXXX conducted by volunteers from the Malaysian Nature Society, we found to our dismay that most of the litter consisted of fishing lines and broken polystyrene foam coolers left behind by the local fishing community.”
2. ADDRESS THE CORRECT PARTY
“The Government should do so-and-so” is a statement that is best restricted to coffeeshop conversations. When you are drafting a Press Statement or a letter to the editor, identify and address the party responsible for rectifying a problem or implementing a solution to an issue.
- Waste management, local community, and recycling issues = Ministry of Housing and Local Government
- Open burning = Dept of Environment
- Marine issues = Dept of Fisheries and Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry.
- Tree felling, green lungs = National Landscape Dept and Ministry of Housing and Local Government
- Pet stores, animal welfare, stray animals = Dept of Veterinary Services
- Wildlife = PERHILITAN and Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment.
- Fuel, vehicle ownership and public transport = Ministry of Transport
3. GO POINT-BY-POINT
If you are writing in response to a letter, report or article, analyse the article you are referring to. Break it down into specific issues that you wish to refute or express agreement with. Be specific.
Here is an example of a point-by-point response to arguments raised by the Malaysian Plastics Forum:
“The plastics industry also attempts to argue that such a ban would result in unemployment. It is, however, unforeseeable to us that any industry, much less the plastics industry, would be so lacking in resilience and resourcefulness that it could not adapt to changes in consumer patterns and legislation and could not come up with alternative or better products to meet market demands.
Further, the plastics industry feigns concern for the environment by arguing that the solution lies in instituting more measures to recycle plastic bags and polystyrene packaging. This is in defiance of science, economics and common sense, which demonstrate that it costs more to recycle a plastic bag than to manufacture one from raw materials, that even the recycling process generates waste and pollution and consumes fuel, water and energy, and that many types of plastic products cannot be safely or feasibly recycled.”
You must be able to explain why you agree/disagree with a statement, and support it with facts. This is more effective than merely saying “Plastic bags are not good for the environment.” As any lawyer will tell you, a failure to refute / challenge someone’s allegation or claim will be taken as an indication of acquiescence!
4. USE EXAMPLES AND COMPARISONS WHENEVER POSSIBLE.
“Leaving your car engine idling while you wait is a waste of fuel” sounds less compelling than “For every two minutes a car is idling, it uses about the same amount of fuel it takes to go about 1.6 km”. Examples, comparisons and illustrations all help to communicate ideas more effectively to your readers, as it will appeal to their imagination and memory. However, be sure to check your facts and references to make sure they are corroborated by official or academic sources.
5. CHECK YOUR REFERENCES
Always cite references whenever possible, e.g. “Relying on the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s and CO2 Balance’s carbon emission calculators, it is determined that a return trip for just one person from Tokyo to KLIA would generate an estimated 2.51 tonnes of carbon dioxide.” Cite specific laws and guidelines, whenever possible. In this age of information technology, there is hardly anything that you could not speedily locate using search engines.
This is especially important if you hold a position of leadership in your organisation and you are writing in the capacity of a representative of your organisation. All information cited should be reliable and relevant.
Just as importantly, check your references. Each statement you cite should be corroborated by more than one source type. For example, a newspaper report should be corroborated by an official statement in a Ministry’s official website. Be careful about citing blogs, Wikipedia or statements and claims made by NGOs of dubious reputation. Check the veracity of their statements. Is it corroborated by any other reliable party? Some sources may not be objective, and be based on personal opinions and prejudices.
Steer clear of “round trip” sources, where secondary sources begin to cite each other (e.g. a Chairman of an NGO cites his own article in their newsletter, and the newsletter quotes him in return) and “mirror corroboration”, where secondary sources all cite one source, creating an illusion of corroboration. You can tell that statements constitute “mirror corroboration” when it is difficult or impossible to verify and does not cite authority. A veteran oil industry executive produced an ad that claims: “There is no scientific evidence that CO2 is a pollutant… higher CO2 levels than we have today would actually help the Earth’s ecosystems”. Your “Mirror Corroboration/Round Trip Corroboration” alarm bells should start ringing by now.
6. USE THE “SANDWICH APPROACH” WHEN APPROPRIATE
When dealing with authorities and parties whose cooperation and assistance you require, it is often helpful to use the “Sandwich Approach” in presenting constructive criticism and feedback. In the sandwich, praise is the bread, and constructive criticism is the filling. The person giving feedback begins by praising strengths, then suggests improvements, and ends with further praise.
An example of how to use the Sandwich Approach in a press statement or letter to the editor:
Bread 1: “Like many citizens, I appreciate the State Government’s concern for the welfare of the people”
Filling: “However, it is submitted that reduced water charges will not help water conservation efforts, and may contribute to a water crisis in the state”. (Provide reasons to back up your statements.)
Bread 2: “I am positive that the State Government would be willing to consider adopting water-saving technologies and practicing better management of our water resources, all of which will help our state reach its developmental goals without sacrificing the environment or the people’s welfare.”
7. TAKE A STAND, BUT BE BALANCED IN YOUR VIEWS
Appreciate that whenever you are expressing your views on one issue, there will always be a percentage of people who hold a different view. Not everyone will be as enthusiastic about cloth shopping bags, taking public transport and using vegetable enzymes as you are. For every tree that you may wish to protect, there may be a fearful houseowner convinced that dead branches will fall through his roof at any time. Try to find a common ground, and then present a balanced and fair argument. Help your opponents address their concerns. Try to reach a compromise and propose solutions whenever possible.
8. PROPOSE AN ALTERNATIVE OR A SOLUTION
An eloquent letter goes nowhere if it ends abruptly without offering alternatives and solutions. Put your research skills to good use by finding alternatives, especially ones tried-and-tested in other jurisdictions. Offering alternatives encourages discussion and communication. Here is an example of how to put forward multiple alternatives in a letter to the editor:
“In order to mitigate the problem of overfishing and at the same time, ensure food security, we must consider alternatives to commercial fishing. These include:
i. Promoting aquaculture and fish farming methods that are sustainable and limit the risk of infection, zoonosis and pollution;
ii. ii. Establishing fishing quotas so fishermen can only legally take a certain amount of fish; and
iii. Declaring certain areas of the sea "no-go zones" and make fishing there strictly illegal, so the fish in that area have time to recover and repopulate.”
9. BE PASSIONATE, NOT EMOTIONAL
Many people mistake being emotional with being passionate. It is best never to write when you are feeling too angry or emotional. A letter that declares: “The poachers should die for this!”, “How could they do this?!?” or “This is crazy!” might be able to get public attention, but is less likely to be taken seriously than one that says: “Legislators must take immediate steps to safeguard our fast-vanishing natural heritage, while PERHILITAN and other bodies entrusted with the regulation of the wildlife trade must be more circumspect in the issuing of permits and be more vigilant in the monitoring of wildlife displays.” Remember that your letter or press statement will reflect on you, your organisation and the cause you champion. Be professional and considerate of other’s views and sensitivities always.
10. NEVER ISSUE THREATS OR ULTIMATUMS
A prolific petition writer has a tendency of making demands and issuing ultimatums in his petitions and press statements. “We demand that the police investigate this matter and bring the culprits to book within 24 hours”, ends one press statement. 24 hours went by, and nothing happened. What can the petition writer do? Threaten to migrate to another country? Threaten to vote in a new government? Terminate the entire police department?
Never write cheques that can’t be cashed. You will end up antagonising the parties that you should be making your allies, and you will end up looking ridiculous.
11. MIND YOUR GRAMMAR, SPELLING AND REFERENCES
Please take the time to proofread your draft, and if possible, get a helpful associate to review it for you. A poorly drafted letter indicates a lack of professionalism. If you don’t take your letter seriously enough to want it to be as free of faults as possible, then chances are, your readers will not take it seriously either.