Guide to Letter-Writing
Often the pen—or computer—really is mightier than the sword. And you don’t have to be Shakespeare! Writing letters to newspapers, businesses, and legislators is an easy, effective way to help animals. Here’s how …
Letters to the Editor
You can get great exposure for animal rights issues by writing letters to the editors of newspapers or magazines. Not only will you be reaching thousands of readers, you will also be bringing your concerns to the attention of policymakers, who often refer to the opinion pages to learn what issues really matter to the public. It’s easier than you might think.
- Read local papers and magazines to get ideas for letters. Watch for articles, ads, or letters that mention animals.
Ads for rodeos, circuses, and fur stores
Articles about medical experiments on animals
Features about local humane groups or companion animal care
- Letters don’t have to be rebuttals. Circus in town? Noticing a lot of strays? Let people know how you feel. You can also use the calendar for inspiration: At Easter, tell readers why they shouldn’t buy bunnies. On Mother’s Day, remind your community of the animals whose babies are taken from them on factory farms.
- Write on good news as well as bad. Thank the paper for its coverage of an anti-fur protest or for running profiles of animals available for adoption at shelters.
- Be brief! Sometimes one pithy paragraph is enough. Three hundred words is the maximum length that most papers or magazines will allow without cutting, and it’s better for you to do the cutting than for the editor to do it. The ideal length is 100 to 150 words (10 to 15 typed lines).
- Type if possible. Otherwise, print legibly. Be sure to use correct grammar and spelling, and remember to have your letter proofread by someone with good language skills.
- Make the first sentence catchy to get the readers’ attention, and stick to one issue.
- The letter should be timely. If you’re responding to an article, send it no more than three days after the article was published.
- Use information from PETA literature and our Web site to help you write your letters. Our materials are not copyrighted and may be distributed freely.
- Make sure you include your name, address, and telephone number in your letter. Some newspapers verify authorship before printing letters.
- Don’t just send letters to the biggest paper in town. The smaller the paper, the better the chances of getting your letter printed. Small weekly papers can help you reach hundreds or even thousands of people.
- Occasionally, you may have the chance to write an opinion piece for the local paper, especially if you are involved in a controversial campaign. These are longer articles of 500 to 800 words that summarize an issue, develop an argument, and propose a solution. Send the article to the editorial page editor with a cover letter explaining why it should be printed. The opinion piece has a better chance of getting printed if it is signed by someone prominent, even if you wrote it for him or her.
- You can also write (or call) television and radio stations to protest the glorification of cruelty to animals or to compliment them on programs that promote animal rights. For example, after NBC’s Today aired a show about how to kill lobsters, it reported that it had received more angry mail about that segment than it had for any other.
Some Tips on Style
- Increase your credibility by mentioning anything that makes you especially qualified to write on a topic.
- For instance, “As a nutritionist, I know that a vegetarian diet is healthy,” or “as a mother,” or “as a former fur-wearer,” or “as a cancer survivor,” etc.
- Try to tell readers something they’re not likely to know (such as how chickens are raised to produce eggs) and suggest ways to take action (such as to stop buying eggs).
- Whenever appropriate, include something for readers to do.
- Keep personal grudges and name-calling out of letters; they’ll hurt your credibility.
- Don’t give lip service to anti-animal arguments. Speak affirmatively.
Example: ”It’s not true that vegetarians are weaklings.”
Better: ”Vegetarians are healthier and slimmer and live years longer than meat-eaters.”
- Avoid self-righteous language and exaggeration. Readers may dismiss arguments if they feel preached to or if the author sounds hysterical.
Example: ”Only a heartless sadist could continue to eat animals when any fool knows that animals’ lives are snuffed out in screaming agony for the satisfaction of people who can’t be bothered to take a moral stand.”
Better: ”Most compassionate people would stop eating meat if they saw the miserable lives that animals raised for food endure.”
- Don’t assume your audience knows the issues.
Example: ”Don’t support the cruel veal industry.”
Better: ”Calves who are factory-farmed for veal are tethered in small stalls and kept in complete darkness. Their mothers also endure sad fates, starting with the loss of their infants a few days after birth.”
- Inclusive language helps your audience identify with you.
Example: ”Eating meat is bad for your health.”
Better: ”We know that eating meat is bad for our health.”
- Use positive suggestions rather than negative commands.
Example: ”Don’t go to the circus.”
Better: ”Let’s take our families to non-animal circuses.”
- Personalize your writing with anecdotes and visual images.
Example: ”Steel-jaw traps can trap an animal by the face, leg, or stomach.”
Better: “Have you ever seen a yearling fox with her face caught in a steel-jaw trap? I have, which is how I know that traps tear into animals’ faces, legs, and stomachs.”
- Avoid speciesist language. Instead of referring to an animal with an inanimate pronoun (“it” or “which”), use “she” or “he” and “who.”
- Avoid euphemisms (“negative reinforcement,” “culling the herd”); say what you really mean (“painful electric shocks,” “slaughtering deer”).
- Criticize the cruelty, not the newspaper.
Example: ”There is no excuse for your article promoting the circus.”
Better: ”There is no excuse for the abuse that goes on in the circus.”
Letters to Businesses
Use your clout as a consumer to protest companies that exploit animals. Tell cosmetics manufacturers that you will purchase other brands until they stop testing on animals, or tell a store that you won’t shop there until it stops carrying live animals—and explain why. If a business offers a fur as a prize, explain why you object to wearing fur and ask the sponsor to offer a prize that does not cause animal suffering, such as a trip or jewelry.
Letters to Legislators
While everyone is good at complaining about politics to their friends, too few citizens express their opinions to those who can do something about it: legislators. Constituent input really does make a difference.
The governor of Virginia vetoed a bill putting a bounty on coyotes because he received so much mail against it.
According to former member of Congress Billy Evans (D-Georgia), “Legislators estimate that 10 letters from constituents represent the concerns of 10,000 citizens. Anybody who will take the time to write is voicing the fears and desires of thousands more.”
If that’s not enough to convince you, ask yourself this: If you don’t communicate with the officials representing you, who will? While you’re complaining to your friends about gruesome animal experiments, someone who disagrees with you is communicating with your representatives.
You’re probably not going to single-handedly convince your legislators to outlaw the fur trade. But many legislators share your objectives and just need to be convinced that there is sufficient public support before putting their necks on the line. The Advocacy Institute explains: “When votes are secured or changed, it’s most likely the aroused constituent-activists—the grassroots—who can claim the credit.”
Here’s How to Make Your Voice Count:
- Find out who your federal and state representatives are.
- Identify yourself as a concerned citizen, not as a member of an organization; legislators want to get feedback from their constituents, not lobbyists.
- Keep letters brief—no more than one page. If you’re writing about a specific bill, mention in the first paragraph the bill’s name (and number if you know it) and whether you support or oppose it. Include reasons and supporting data in the next paragraph or two. Conclude by asking for a response.
- Focus on a specific topic. Don’t ask the legislator just to “support animal rights bills.” Very few legislators vote in favor of all animal protection bills, because different issues are at stake with each one.
- Be polite and concise. Keep everything relevant to the bill or issue in question. Never be threatening or insulting. Remember, each letter pertaining to a particular piece of legislation is usually counted as a “yes” or “no.”
- Don’t get overwhelmed by the project. Just get those letters written and in the mail! As few as 10 letters on any one topic can sway a legislator’s vote. Several hours of letter writing every month can make a big impact. And don’t be discouraged if you receive unfavorable responses; the more we communicate with public officials, the sooner they’ll change their positions. Remember … right now, raccoons are chewing off their paws to escape from steel-jaw traps. Right now baby chicks’ beaks are being burned off. Right now, animal performers are being beaten backstage. Right now, millions of dogs, cats, cows, sheep, pigs, chimpanzees, rabbits, mice, and other animals are being abused in laboratories and on factory farms. Write now!