Some Dos and Don’ts of Writing for Advocacy, Part 2: Writing Letters to Elected Officials

In her latest post sharing some dos and don'ts about writing for advocacy, instructor Tracy Hahn-Burkett offers helpful tips when writing letters to elected officials. Interested in learning more about writing for advocacy? Join Tracy's upcoming sessions covering Op-Eds on July 24th and Amplifying Your Voice on July 31st. 
How many times have you looked at your local schools, your town, your state or your country and said, “This ought to work differently. Why don’t they [insert your opinion here]?” If you really believe in that opinion, or if you have an idea that you think has merit, why not share it with the people who are in a position to do something about it? You voted for your representatives, after all; they work for you. Here are some dos and don’ts for writing letters to people who make political decisions.

  • DO know who your audience is and what they can do. A member of Congress (MOC) can effect change on a national level, especially in their committees. Some, due to seniority or knowledge in specific areas or special niches they’ve carved out for themselves, have more power than others. They don’t vote on state or local matters; that’s what state senators, state representatives, and local officials do. That being said, elected officials can sometimes exercise a persuasive influence outside their actual jurisdiction. And don’t forget letters to the editor. Elected officials may read those, but so do other political decision-makers: voters.

  • DON’T write to elected representatives who don’t represent you. Constituents have power because they have a say on Election Day. If you’re writing to an elected representative in someone else’s district, you have no influence there, and, to be honest, those representatives just aren’t interested in your point of view. Now, before you say, “But my sister/cousin/parents/best friend/uncle/etc. lives there, and they know a lot of people, and I’m going to put that in my letter,” stop. Those representatives still don’t care. Your best bet is to convince your family and friends in those representatives’ districts to contact theirrepresentatives. The occasional exception to this rule is in some local or state efforts where advocacy leaders are coordinating drives to flood state leadership or committee offices with phone calls.

  • DO remember to include an ask at the beginning and end of every letter to an elected official.

  • DON'T be offended if you don’t get a personalized response from your member of Congress. You should get a response, but it may well be a form letter on the issue you’re concerned about. Understand that, for example, a MOC can get thousands of letters, emails and phone calls per week. If your congressperson tried to answer each letter personally, it would be the only thing they did—and they still wouldn’t be able to complete the task.

  • DO consider following up on your writing with a visit when members of Congress are home. Another name for congressional “recesses” is “district work periods.” Yes, sometimes MOCs go on official Congressional Delegation visits to various areas or take vacations during recess, but many recess periods are devoted to work time in their districts. Call and see when your MOC will be around for a follow-up visit, or when you might visit with local staff to discuss your point. You can call state and local officials for a follow-up conversation, too.

  • DON’T forget to write to thank your elected officials when they do something that meets with your approval. Elected officials don’t receive nearly as many thank-yous as complaints or asks, and a gracious note of gratitude stands a chance of standing out—which may help you the next time you write in about a change you’d like to see happen.

Want to learn more about writing for advocacy? Sign up for Tracy's upcoming Writing for Advocacy Series sessions. In these related seminars, you'll explore the components of different forms of political writing for both writers and everyday citizens looking to change their corners of the world. Follow the links below to register for the two remaining sessions. As always, scholarships are available.

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About the Author

Tracy Hahn-Burkett is a writer and public policy advocate. She co-writes a column on civics in Concord, N.H.’s newspaper of record, The Concord Monitor, contributes to the fiction-writing blog, Writer Unboxed, and has published dozens of essays, stories, articles and reviews in places like The Drum, WBUR’s Cognoscenti, The Washington Post’s On Parenting, and Adoptive Families magazine. She also founded and wrote for more than 11 years the adoption and parenting blog, Uncharted Parent. In the policy world, in early 2018, Tracy founded the Gun Violence Prevention Working Group as part of the all-volunteer, grassroots Kent Street Coalition, based in Concord, N.H., and is a leader within the overall group on democracy-related issues. Earlier in her career, Tracy served as a congressional staffer, a U.S. Department of Justice Attorney-Adviser under the auspices of the Departmental Attorney General’s Honors Program, and was Deputy and Acting Director of Public Policy for the civil rights and civil liberties nonprofit, People for the American Way. She also worked in post-Communist Czechoslovakia, teaching English and coordinating Western assistance programs for the Federal Assembly and the Czech National Council. She is a recipient of a grant from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, and is perpetually revising her first novel.

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by Tracy Hahn-Burkett

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