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Planning Retirement Online

Writer's Block: Writing Letters

Some would-be writers might think that magazine letters are not "real" writing, but they serve many useful purposes for potential authors:

  • they force you to write succinctly and to communicate well in few words
  • they are the quickest, easiest way to get your point of view across to readers
  • getting even short items published is an acknowledgement that you can write (when you consider how many letter-writers never see their words in print)
  • a star letter can earn money or goods up to £50 - £80

Even if at times you might be furious of Fulham, the area to avoid when using letters as a route into article-writing is the "rant". Newspapers may be full of angry epistles on the latest planning applications or new laws, but you need to concentrate on magazines and journals where you can practise using your writing skills to inform, entertain or educate. So in the same way that an article needs to be thought through, always take time with any letter to identify:

  1. the message you want to get across
  2. the most appropriate style to write in
  3. the best publication for a particular letter
  4. how to add value

Just as a letter of complaint, enquiry or condolence will have a point, you want to decide why you are writing a letter to a magazine and make sure your readers will get the message clearly. Here are the most common themes for readers' letters that you will find get published regularly:

  • In praise of the publication or a particular article.. Obviously the message here is "what a good magazine/article it was", but anyone can write that. So to add value, you need to do more than just praise. One way is to give an example of how the advice in an article helped you in your life; and another is to add something extra e.g. information or an experience related to the details you are praising.
  • Nostalgia - these are usually information-giving letters where an experience or photograph and description you provide adds to readers' knowledge of an era or type of activity. To work, make sure you set out clearly all the relevant facts in that well-known format: Who, What, Why, Where and When.
  • Personal stories - magazines love "senior moments" or daft quotes from children, but take care with personal stories - even when you think they are very amusing anecdotes.. To add value, think about a general message for readers that you can include or the story on its own may not mean much. As an example, the story of my mother having her handbag stolen in a supermarket was only worth publishing because the letter included advice for elderly readers about looking after their possessions.
  • Starting or continuing a debate - controversy can be good as it encourages other readers to respond in the letters pages. A common letter is one that disagrees with an article previously published, but it is important not just to give an opinion but to back up any view with evidence or examples so that your case is convincing.
  • Hints, tips and advice. There is a huge demand for useful tips from readers but it is very much a matter of luck if you pick the right topic and time for your contribution. If possible, try to avoid the more self-centred approach (e.g. I have just made some wonderful jam so I'll write a letter telling everyone my recipe) and analyse the magazine to see if there are any gaps in their provision or hints that could relate to previous articles. As an example, my recipe for oatcakes was published after I explained in my first paragraph that the magazine had included a number of cheese advertisements which showed these biscuits but they can be very expensive to buy..

Here are a few final words to help you get your letters published:

  • Keep them short - check out the longest letter on the page and make yours shorter.
  • Write in the appropriate style - if they like short, jokey letters or those full of bullet pointed facts, make yours similar.
  • You will only know if a letter is published if you get the specific issue or receive a letter offering you a prize, so don't write the same letter to many magazines. If you think it is appropriate to several publications, change each letter enough so that you won't be embarrassed to see several published at the same time
  • Check grammar, spelling and punctuation

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