Effective letters

IssueOctober 2009
Feature by Jenny Maxwell
  •  The purpose of writing a letter is that it should be read. This may sound obvious but it’s important to consider your letter from the point of view of the recipient. Someone once rang the West Midlands CND office asking us to complain to the Birmingham Post because his letter hadn’t been printed. When he told us how long it was, we knew exactly why!
  • Start positively, by thanking or praising, if you can (not always possible).
  • Keep letters short, clear and concise – you want them to be read.
  • Be polite, though a bit of emotion and the personal touch do no harm. I sometimes wrote letters to the Birmingham papers in the name of my mother (with her permission) along the lines of: “As a great-grandmother who has lived most of her life in Birmingham, I was horrified to learn that nuclear warheads travel through Spaghetti Junction”. Newspapers like this sort of thing.
  • Ask questions, but not too many or the easy ones will be answered and the others left.
  • If possible, follow up if answers are unsatisfactory. After a long correspondence with a civil servant, he did eventually tell me that the destructive power of our nuclear weapons, as opposed to their firepower, was classified. The government always says that the firepower has been greatly reduced, but fails to add that each warhead on a Polaris missile would hit the same target. As the warheads on a Trident missile can each hit different targets, this greatly increases the amount of destruction.
  • Make sure you can back up quotations and facts with references. One slight slip can mean a total loss of credibility. An MP on the West Midlands mailing list once queried something in our monthly newsletter. She was right – I’d confused a UN Sub-Committee with the General Assembly. It was a salutary lesson.
  • Tailor your letter to the audience – asking questions of a minister or MP is quite different from writing to your local paper.
  • Use the theme of your letter, adapted, for several purposes (eg to your local paper, saying: “I have written to my MP asking…”).
  • Write to the local press. A local paper is read by a much wider spectrum of political opinion than a national.
  • Try to get a team of people to write letters to the press to keep a topic going.
  • If writing to a government minister, send the letter to your MP, asking for your views to be passed on – if you go directly to the minister, a civil servant will deal with it. This also gives your MP information and tells your MP what you think. One of our West Midlands members once received a reply from an MP saying he quite agreed with Labour Party policy of opposing missile defence. This gave our member the excuse to send the MP material showing Labour support for missile defence.
  • Post is better than email – so much comes through email that it is often ignored. Some people advise ringing the MP’s office if a letter is sent by email.
  • If the letter is about an early day motion (EDM), you must quote its number and the full text.
  • A final thought: Do ministers and civil servants really believe what they write back to us?