Blog Entry 2: Writing an Effective Issue Response Letter


Tips for Writing an Effective Issue Response Letter

One of the simplest and most immediate actions we can take as archival advocates is to write a response or protest letter to a specific situation. As a Roundtable we collectively write a number of such letters in the course of a year, and we encourage individual members to write their own heartfelt responses to issues of particular significance to them or to the profession.


Controversial or galvanizing issues produce many, many letters [the ongoing situation at the Georgia State Archives, for example], and it’s easy for a single communication to be lost in all the noise. If you want your own letter to stand out and to have an impact, you’ll want to craft one that maximizes its effectiveness and strikes right to the heart of the matter. At the same time, you want a letter that reflects your professionalism, competency, and commitment. This post offers a few tips that I hope will help writers to craft good letters that will capture their targets’ attention and, perhaps, help to sway their hearts and minds.


Announce Yourself. You are writing an advocacy letter as a member of the archival profession, not simply as a private citizen. It’s a good idea to state your professional affiliations and bona fides somewhere in your text: either at the beginning, where you can set the stage by letting the reader know your qualifications to speak on the issue at hand, or at the conclusion, where you can sum up your argument in the same way. Be as simple and brief as you can. If you hold or have held any noticeable important professional positions, feel free to mention them, but don’t list your entire CV or every professional organization of which you are a member. Your reader will note particularly any positions of authority you hold.


Be Short and To the Point. A good advocacy letter is an arrow aimed towards a specific target. A letter that argues a great number of different points at once scatters the reader’s attention and is likely to be less effective, than one focused on one or two objects. If, say, you’re writing to protest a major institutional budget cut, concentrate your attention on that - don’t also use the opportunity to talk about the institution’s need for a new offsite storage facility. 


When you compose your own letter, speak directly to the issue at hand, avoiding extraneous details (such as a long recapping of the issue). Give just enough issue background to set context, then move straight to your argument. Once you’ve made your point, come to a quick and natural conclusion. Your reader may be getting a lot of letters on the same subject, and, human nature being what it is, probably will be drawn towards the shorter, simpler ones.


Write Persuasively, But Gently. Of course, you’re writing a letter in order to persuade your reader towards taking, or at least considering, a certain course of action. But there’s a fine line between persuasion and hectoring. You definitely do not want to nag, to threaten, to insult, or to anger your reader.  Write in a reasonable tone, carefully and accurately stating your point(s) without resorting to personal attacks or exaggerating the situation. Readers will respond better to [as well as finish reading!] calm, reasoned arguments rather than strident, overzealous screeds.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t let your feelings over the issue at hand stay silent. When writing an advocacy letter, do make it clear why you’re concerned about the subject. But use that passion judiciously, not as a club to hit your reader over the head.


There Are Consequences! A good advocacy letter makes it clear that actions have consequences. What will happen to the collection, the institution, the profession, etc. if the situation does or doesn’t change? You need to make your reader understand what may happen if they continue on the course they’ve set. Don’t bury the reader under a flurry of data or statistics or anecdotes or hypotheticals, but be clear and concise in describing potential consequences. Of course, talk about large-scale consequences (i.e. “this budget cut is a blow to preserving the permanent record of democratic government”), but you need to stress the immediate – what will this state of affairs do to the reader directly, to his/her institution, or to his/her customer base?


These tips, I hope, will help anyone who’s having trouble putting together an effective advocacy letter. As more and more issues affecting the profession demand our attention, we’re likely to find ourselves writing more and more letters, and I know from experience that every bit of advice can help!


Jeremy Brett