Putting pen to paper still gives you the power, writes Keith Flett

Keith Flett, socialist historian and letter writer, argues that in the age of social media, a published letter in a newspaper still beats Twitter and Facebook. He should know. In over a quarter of a century, he has had thousands of letters published in national newspapers. We’re grateful to him for sharing his letter writing tips with Uncut readers.

In the age of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, texts and YouTube, why bother to write a letter to the editor? I use all the above formats, but it is only when I have a letter published in a national paper that people stop me to say: “I saw your letter”. They hardly ever say “I saw your tweet” or “I saw your post on Facebook”.

The reason is obvious: a letter in the Guardian or Independent will reach many thousands of people. Other, newer media will reach hundreds if you are lucky. Letters to the editor deliver impact – one of the reasons why those of us who are politically active want to impart our thoughts to a wider audience in the first place.

The expansion of the newspaper letters page has come with the increase in pagination of papers; it is a cheap way of filling space. But it also reflects a rise in a democratic impulse in society. More people have a view that they want to express themselves rather than relying on someone else to do it for them.

It might be argued that the comment sections of newspaper websites – the Guardian’s comment is free for example – are replacing the letters pages. I doubt it. Such areas are moderated to avoid legal action, but they are not edited. They are inhabited by the 2010 inheritors of the ‘disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ tradition of comments in green ink.

The whole point of a letters page is that it is edited to provide a pointed and interesting selection of readers’ comments. But how to write an effective political letter?

The first and key point is to find your own voice and your own style. So write often. These days, with e-mail, despatching a letter to the editor is as easy as it has ever been. That said, those who do write reflect the inequalities in existing society. Fewer women write, and a disproportionate section of those who get published tend to be men with important causes and institutions to represent. All the more reason for socialists to get writing.

The second point is to keep your letter  brief. The art of effective political letter writing is akin to stand-up comedy. An effective and sharp one liner will be read and remembered a lot more than a a letter that takes a few column inches. Not every political point can be dealt with in a line or two, but two or three paragraphs with one point in each is the maximum.

Most letters are reactive; responding to an editorial or a news piece in a paper or in the wider news. To start a discussion on a letters page from cold is phenomenally difficult.

But that does suggest a third point: timeliness. There is no point sending in a letter about a newspaper editorial a week after it has appeared. Do it on the day, preferably before midday. Most papers will make their final selections of letters for the following day mid-afternoon. Again, with e-mail and Blackberry, that is easy to achieve.

Finally, I would avoid attacking others on the left in the mainstream press. A letter in the New Statesman or Tribune might be fine for that, but  to see the left arguing with itself on a letters page helps only one political tendency and it’s not ours. Of course, there are occasions when a debate is useful and fair enough, but again a little good faith goes a long way.

Keith Flett is the doyen of British newspaper letter-writers.

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5 Responses to “Putting pen to paper still gives you the power, writes Keith Flett”

  1. James B says:

    You state that people “hardly ever say “I saw your tweet” or “I saw your post on Facebook”.” Do you think that might be because you’re not very good at writing them?

  2. DJ Crowley says:

    Good piece. I avidly read any letter to the Editor by Keith Fett, London N17.

  3. Keith, I always enjoy your letters to Tribune, even though I disagree with almost all of them.

    The art of letter writing is far more enjoyable than commenting on a blog, because no one can instantly answer back. Replies are more poised and thoughful.

  4. Useful as this post is, I’d much rather read a piece on the relevance of facial hair to the modern British left. Any chance we can get Keith back for that?

  5. Rudi Affolter says:

    Thank you for the suggestions Keith. I have managed a few to ‘The Guardian’ and the occasional local paper but that’s about all. I agree with the second part of Mike’s letter above.

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