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Guest article: How to get your bike smarts on the Opinion Page

Posted by Jessica Roberts on December 21st, 2007 at 10:24 am

Jessica Roberts
(Photo ©
Jonathan Maus)

This article was written by Jessica Roberts. Jessica is the former metro area advocate for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and she is now a planner for Alta Planning and Design.

Jessica previously wrote about the City of Portland's bike parking fund.

In the article below, she offers insights on how to write effective letters-to-the-editor, and more importantly, how get them published.


Effective Writing 101

I know this may shock you, but I don’t get all my news from BikePortland.

"If you’re not writing letters, you’re letting the bad guys have the last word."

In fact, I’m one of those people who reads the paper every morning. There are plenty of other folks who read the daily paper as well, and research tells us that they’re relatively well-educated, well-informed, and likely to participate in elections and public process.

In fact, these are exactly the people we need to get on our side.

After the front page, the opinion section is one of the most-read sections of the paper. This is great news because it’s not difficult to write a letter to the editor that has a good chance of being published. Every bike-friendly letter to the editor sends a message that bicyclists are educated and paying attention, and that Portland cares about bike issues.

Besides, anti-bike letters get published all the time, so if you’re not writing letters, you’re letting the bad guys have the last word.

I love writing letters to the editor. You have the chance to craft the perfect appeal to your neighbor, your boss, that guy who didn’t look for you at the stop sign yesterday. It’s one of the best tools bicycle advocates have to quit talking to ourselves and reach all those Portlanders who aren’t bicyclists (yet).

Over the years I’ve learned a few tips that make it more likely for a letter to get published.

  • Don't delay
  • Keep it short
  • Show some character
  • Make Miss Manners proud
  • Include your contact info

Don’t delay
Letters to the editor should always be about a timely issue—a recent happening, an article in this morning’s paper, or the hot issue of the week. You’re more likely to get printed if yours is one of the first letters they receive on the subject. And I’ve found that if I delay at all in writing the letter, I never get around to it. If I have something I want to write about, I sit down and dash something out in 5 or 10 minutes, proofread, and send it off. It’s better to write something imperfect than never get around to writing your perfect letter.

Keep it short

"It’s one of the best tools bicycle advocates have to quit talking to ourselves and reach all those Portlanders who aren’t bicyclists (yet)"

You don’t want the editor to decide which of your points is the most important. Do them the favor of staying within their length guidelines. Besides, newspaper readers are as busy as you are – three perfect sentences are more likely to be read than seventeen rambling ones. Figure out what your one main point is, and stick to it.

Show some character
If you haven’t hooked your reader by the time they’ve finished your first sentence, they’ll skip it. Make sure your opening line has some punch to it. And make sure the rest isn’t boring either–tell a story, use expressive language, use powerful words, dare to be funny, show your passion.

Make Miss Manners proud
Be excruciatingly polite. Follow letter formatting. Proofread (and if you’re bad at this, have a friend proofread it for you).

Include your contact info
Submit your full name, home address, and daytime telephone number. This is to help the editors make sure you are a real person; they will only print your name. Follow the submission guidelines exactly. The editor receives many submissions, so if you make them have to track you down online, they probably won’t bother. Expect a call (or sometimes an email) before they print your letter.

Now that you know how to write the letter, here are some contacts and letters to the editor requirements for a few local media outlets.

The Oregonian
Letters to the editor, The Oregonian
1320 S.W. Broadway
Portland, OR, 97201
e-mail to: letters@news.oregonian.com

Please limit letters to 150 words. Please include your full address and daytime phone number, for verification only. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

===

Portland Mercury
Letters to the Editor
c/o The Portland Mercury
605 NE 21st Ave, Suite 200
Portland, OR 97232
loveletters@portlandmercury.com

Letters may be edited for space consideration.

===

Portland Tribune
Online letter submission page
Letters to the Editor should be no longer than 250 words. Submissions for a guest opinion column should be no longer than than 600 words. Submissions may be edited for length, grammar, libel and appropriate taste.

Letters must be accompanied by a name, telephone number, email address and street address for verification purposes. Anonymous letters will not be published. Street addresses, telephone numbers or e-mail addresses will not be printed.

===

Willamette Week
2220 NW Quimby St
Portland, OR 97210
mzusman@wweek.com

Letters must be signed by the author and include the author’s street address and phone number for verification. Letters must be 250 or fewer words.

Don’t feel like you have to stop with just the local paper, either! Magazines print letters as well, and letters from Portlanders have been published in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and even the Economist.

I hope you’ll give it a try, and if you're already a letter writer, please share your examples and tips in the comments.

This article was written by Jessica Roberts.

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Comments
  • Carl December 21, 2007 at 10:26 am

    You\'re giving away the secrets?!

    I\'m always impressed with the letters you write, Jessica. Thanks for the tips.

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  • Elly Blue December 21, 2007 at 10:53 am

    Thanks, Jessica! I know I\'m going to refer to this cheat sheet next time I get excited or upset by an article in the paper.

    By the way, Joe Adamski of shift-y fame had a snappy, smart, and polite letter to the editor printed in this morning\'s Oregonian, questioning the ability of electric cars to save us from ourselves...

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  • Jessica Roberts December 21, 2007 at 12:39 pm

    Jonathan asked me to paste in a few past letters I\'ve written to show what I mean; here are a couple:


    People who should support red-light cameras: Safe drivers who don\'t want to be hit by red-light-runners. Pedestrians, bicyclists, the elderly and children, who are particularly vulnerable to injury in traffic crashes. Police departments, who have yet another effective tool to improve traffic safety. City officials and legislators, who can be proud they are doing their part to reduce the 42,000 tragic traffic deaths that happen yearly in America. Community members who are concerned about traffic safety. Business owners, who will have a safer and more attractive street for their business. All of us responsible Oregonians who are tired of seeing people get away with running red lights.

    People who should oppose red-light cameras: jerks who want to run red lights.

    For me, the right path is clear. I applaud our legislature for taking on this important issue.

    --------------

    I’m sick and tired of letters complaining about cyclists who break laws. Have you ever driven over the speed limit? Rolled through a stop sign? Didn’t stop for a pedestrian? Gone over 20 in a school zone?

    I see drivers break these laws and more every day. These laws are important. They keep our streets safe.

    If you’re hit by a car going 20 MPH, you have a 5% chance of dying. If that car is going 40 MPH, you have a 90% chance of dying. If you’re hit by one of those
    outlaw cyclists, you just have a 37% chance of getting grease on your clothes.

    Let’s focus on what’s killing hundreds Portland residents every year: drivers breaking laws. We have the power to say that speeding in residential neighborhoods, red light running, drunk driving, and reckless driving are not acceptable. Let’s just say no to the true criminals.

    ----

    In response to David Nichols’s letter this morning: I do everything he asks for and more to make myself visible on my bike. I have two headlights, three taillights, my bike is covered in reflective tape, and I wear the world’s ugliest—-but very visible-—fluorescent yellow jacket.

    Yet you’d be shocked at how many times every day a driver cuts me off, pulls out in front of me, or otherwise threatens my life by not seeing me. Since I look like a human disco ball, I have to think that if they didn’t see me they must not be trying very hard.

    I do my part, but it’s not enough. I hope Mr. Nichols and all drivers will hold up their end of the bargain.

    Open up your eyes and LOOK for bikes!

    ----

    I see it every day: drivers running stop signs, speeding through neighborhoods and school zones, and generally treating the road as their playground.

    Aggressive driving seems to be getting worse every year, and innocent victims pay the price. Drivers full of road rage are a menace to all of us, but especially
    to our most vulnerable citizens: children and the elderly, those on foot, and those who ride a bicycle.

    I\'m thrilled to read about Multnomah County\'s proposal to target aggressive motorists. Driving isn\'t a right to be abused by the rude, reckless, and irresponsible. It\'s a serious responsibility, and it\'s about time we
    started treating it like the privilege it is.

    I thank Multnomah County and hope that our state legislators will follow their leadership.

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  • cary December 21, 2007 at 1:12 pm

    Jessica, thanks for the good advice. Do your suggestions apply to emails also? or are you only talking about paper letters?

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  • Jessica Roberts December 21, 2007 at 1:27 pm

    Cary, you may submit Letters to the Editor by email or by snail mail. Email is actually better because there is no delay.

    Does that answer your question?

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  • Vance December 21, 2007 at 2:53 pm

    Outrageous.

    \"People who should oppose red-light cameras: jerks who want to run red lights.\"

    While there is little doubt as to my status as, \'jerk\', I think you\'ve forgotten a few people here. For starters, how about people who cherish privacy? Freedom? Liberty? There are already laws prohibiting the running of red-lights. There is already enforcement of these laws. Still not satisfied, you are advocating bringing in, \"Big Brother\", to take care of business that you seem personally incapable of taking care of yourself! So much for the 21st century, Independent Woman, eh?

    You know J, tampons, human hair, and vitamin pills are clogging the City\'s sewage systems. Perhaps I will become an advocate of installing cameras in people\'s bathrooms to prevent this growing problem. Shoplifting is hurting us all too, why not some cameras in the dressing rooms of our nation\'s retailers? In fact, why don\'t we just cut to the chase, install monitoring equipment in the skulls of newborns, and record the every waking moment of every single human being\'s life, so they don\'t get to misbehaving?

    If you find the roadways fail to meet your requirements of safety, why do you choose to use them? After all, nobody is forcing you to use the public right-of-way. You and your ilk are burying us in legislation. In order to provide yourself with the inherently delusional illusion of safety, you will gladly sacrifice the rights we have in a free society. Man, aren\'t you the sweet one? I\'m curious, do any of your plans include the issuing of Red Arm Bands?

    Thank you, as well, for participating in the homogenization of the public voice. That\'s super of you too. Flood the Oregonian with enough superfluous mail, and you can completely eradicate its effectiveness as a public forum. You must be from California.

    One last suggestion. If you find yourself dissatisfied with the state of your new home, feel free to move back to whatever colossal waste of space you came from; and help keep Portland, OR free of social fascism. Bye!

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  • ChipSeal December 21, 2007 at 11:55 pm

    \"...37% chance of getting grease on their clothes.\"

    LOL! A delightful turn of phrase, Jessica!

    Thanks for the tips, I will be mindful of them in my posts too. Well done!

    Tailwinds, Chip.

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  • kasandra December 23, 2007 at 9:09 am

    Well done, Jessica. And I agree with \'Chipseal,\' the 37% figure is delightful.

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  • Bill Stites December 23, 2007 at 11:40 am

    Thanks, Jessica, for some excellent tips.

    I particularly liked the \"Don\'t delay\" advice, as being applicable to many things I consider doing, but don\'t get done because they get put off.

    And in line with politeness, I would like to add a bit about \'angry\' letters. DON\'T SEND THEM! I attribute this wisdom to Abe Lincoln, who encouraged actually writing the letter - presumably to process your anger - but just don\'t send it.

    This is especially important today with e-mail, internet and other electronic duplication and search engines ... one should expect that one\'s words will be read periodically ad infinitum. Even just the recipient rereading imparts an increasingly negative image of you over time. Just recognize that your words represent you long after you write them.

    Happy Holidays.

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  • Jeff December 25, 2007 at 2:57 pm

    I\'ve had 10 or more letters published over the years, half were bicycle related the other half were other issues. But alot of issues are intertwind. They may not directly be about bicyling, but are effecting aspects of our lives, that involve our commitment to cycling.
    For instance the new Maintenance Fee being promoted by Sam Adams, with money used for roads and bike boulevards, seems like a good thing on the surface, but in reality it\'s a subsidy for autos. I have one car and usually ride my bike, my neighbor has 5 cars and they drive all the time, we pay the same tax. The tax raises the cost of housing and increases auto use, becausse they don\'t pay the full cost of using the roads. If we are going to get bikes replacing cars we need cars to pay the full price of their use, only then will bikes look more appealing.
    This is somewhat off topic, but you can see how alot of issues, PDC, the Day labor Center or the Converntion Hotel effect all of us in various ways.
    Writing your representative or testifying at meetings, which I did against the Convention Center Hotel, can have some effect positive effects too.
    Merry Christmas to All
    Ride On,
    Jeff

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  • Kristen December 26, 2007 at 9:34 am

    Here\'s another tip:

    SPELL CHECK.

    It goes along with proofreading, but surprisingly, most people don\'t do it-- or can\'t catch the ones the computer misses.

    And yes, 100% in agreement with whoever said not to send angry letters-- with the caveat that a well-written, polite, angry letter is better than no letter at all.

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  • Jessica Roberts December 26, 2007 at 11:23 am

    Yes, I agree, Kristen -- you can get away with angry if it\'s balanced by politeness, good spelling and grammar, and an excellent argument. Great letters can be passionate or outraged, but you don\'t want to risk sounding out of control.

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  • Matthew December 26, 2007 at 9:59 pm

    Vance: The advice also applies to comments on websites...

    \"Three perfect sentences are more likely to be read than seventeen rambling ones.\"

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  • Dave December 28, 2007 at 5:55 pm

    Good tips, and yes, if you don\'t write/vote you are letting the bad guys win...
    I have to include my middle name on my letters since I have a common name. So, if you have a common name, just don\'t include your initial. However, if the newspaper is interested in publishing your letter they may contact you and ask for it.

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  • Andra Brosy December 30, 2007 at 4:58 pm

    Here is a letter I had in the New Yorker recently:

    Elizabeth Kolbert argues that, in view of the atrocious average gas mileage of current cars, the present rate of global oil consumption, and the anticipated exponential growth in Indian and Chinese car ownership, the very existence of the automobile is imperilled (Books, November 5th). Only the invention of a “super car” that runs on a “safe, inexpensive, and . . . inexhaustible” power source would save it from extinction. But we already have a “super car”: the bicycle, whose fuel source is indeed safe, inexpensive (free), and inexhaustible. Considering that forty per cent of this country’s oil use comes from passenger cars, and that cars account for eighty-two per cent of trips of five miles or less – a distance easily traveled by bike – it is clear that the bicycle can do more for our health and fuel security than any concept car developed by G.M., Chrysler, or Ford. Our real job is not to pursue the ever-elusive technology that will allow our car addiction to continue but to transform our cities from sprawling suburban jungles into compact, human-sized neighborhoods where bicycling can flourish.

    In addition to the other great tips, I would add that you should be familiar with the style of each publication\'s letters. I would have been more succinct, for example, if I were writing for the Oregonian. Also, be careful with your facts so you can always back them up with a reliable source - bookmark websites, articles, etc., so you know where you got your information.

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  • Duncan December 31, 2007 at 3:15 pm

    Vance-
    I think that you are confusing driving with a right. You have no right to drive- if you follow the rules, pay the fees and keep your car insured, you get to drive.

    As someone who got a photo radar ticket (33 in a school zone- oops), I have only this to say- the school (a religous acadmy) is not visable from the street (SE 92nd), and the sign isnt big 97$ later I keep a better look out for those signs, and thats a small price to pay for not hitting a kid going home from school. You get one ticket and you can call it a reminder that you are not alone on the road, get four tickets and maybe you need to re-examine your driving habits. Pretty simple.

    You are also forgetting that roadways are public spaces, and as such you can be photographed... its within their rights to photograph you in a public place- contrary to popular opinion your car is not a private universe. If a criminal robs someone, and someone takes an identifying photo, that photo can be used in court. If you feel that the photo radar is in error, you have the right to contest it.

    I also have seen the positive effect that the red light photo cameras have had on some notoriously dangerous intersections both in Portland and elsewhere.

    That is my opinion anyway.

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  • Jessica Roberts January 3, 2008 at 10:05 am

    Andra, I loved your letter so much! Congrats! Great placement (first) too. I tried to send it to Jonathan but it didn\'t seem to be available online.

    Your advice about facts is excellent. You should always double-check facts and statistics before putting them in a letter. While I don\'t usually include my sources, it\'s good to be able to provide them if asked or challenged.

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  • bosworth January 3, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    Andra. Your New Yorker letter was great. I was so proud to see a Portland byline on such an articulate, well-argued response to the article about the future of the automobile.

    {My in-laws even called from the East Coast to comment on the letter. They were impressed with the logic and clarity of the argument, and basically said: \"what is it with you Portland people and bikes?\"}

    Also, this is an excellent example of the principles that Jessica outlined in her article. Again, you did us all proud. (You too Jessica! Thanks for your excellent article).

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  • Jessica Roberts January 7, 2008 at 10:00 am

    Michelle had a great letter in the Oregonian this morning too. Congrats!

    In regard to Kent Thornburg\'s lament that Oregon\'s children are caught in a \"perfect storm\" blowing them toward obesity and disease, there is an inexpensive way for families to address one of the causes -- lack of daily exercise.

    In the 1960s, about 66 percent of American kids walked or biked to school. Today that number is 12 percent, and it\'s falling.

    Families who live in walkable neighborhoods close to a school should encourage their kids to walk or bike for the sake of exercise. Families that don\'t should ask their elected leaders to provide neighborhood schools and make streets safe enough for their kids to walk, bike and play.

    If we can\'t afford to let kids exercise during school hours, it should be a top priority outside of schools, in neighborhoods.

    MICHELLE POYOUROW Southeast Portland

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