The outcome of many stewardship issues comes down to communication and often this is in the form of written letters, emails, or formal comments. While teaching writing skills is beyond the scope of the toolbox there are some basic ground rules and formatting rules that will help individuals effectively communicate in writing. The following are some general guidelines to consider before writing letters or comments to governing bodies, potential allies or opponents, or the public at large.
- Write to your audience – but realize who reads your writing is beyond your control the moment you send it. You should use formal language when addressing any public official, and in any public comments. You should use more conversational and persuasive language in the press and in appeals to your community. ALWAYS expect that every word you write will be read by everyone – friends, foes, the President, your mother, etc.
- Speak the truth! – This goes without saying, but stick to statements that are absolute fact. If you feel opinions and assumptions are critical to make your point than be sure to state clearly that they are just that – opinions and assumptions.
- Never state a problem without suggesting a solution and/or offering to work out a solution. Often times proposing a process for reaching a solution together is better than attempting to unilaterally propose one. There is little room for punishment in advocacy work – so keep doors open and propose resolutions.
- Do not offend - When writing to someone for the first time, keep things simple. Complex letters go a lot better after a phone or face to face meeting, or at the very least after an initial exchange of cordial greeting emails or letters. Resist the urge to say offensive things, even subtly, especially when you are mad or upset. The goal is more important than your personal feelings, and offending people will never lead to a faster or better resolution.
- Order you arguments from strongest to weakest - In public appeals it may be an emotional or ethical argument that should come first, while in filing legal and regulatory comments your strongest legal arguments should come first.
- Always restate your basic arguments or request in a conclusion paragraph.
- Always have an “Ask.” - Letters and comments should by design lead to the next step, make your “ask” absolutely clear. Why are you writing the letter – are you requesting a meeting, a legal analysis, a response, etc? Letters and comments should pave the way for, and almost force the next step.
With these basic principles in mind, use your best judgment!
In general letters and comments should follow the following format:
[Address of person/entity you are sending this to] [Date]
RE: [state what your document refers to]
Dear [appropriate formal title]
Introduce yourself and who you represent. Express why you have standing - in other words why you care and why you should be listened to.\
Provide background on the issue, including your involvement.
Describe the current status and the problem or problems.
Describe you interests in the issue. Interests are “why” you are concerned with the issue, not your ideas on how to solve the problem. Your interests may include things like being able to access a river (not specific access solutions), maintaining great water quality and aesthetics (but not how to reach those objectives), or protecting a species (but not specific protective measures).
Describe potential solutions or a process that could lead to solutions. Do so with humility and openness to other solutions.
Express your willingness and enthusiasm to work on a solution.
Thank the audience for considering your issues, and encourage them to call or email you with any questions or just to talk.