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The Write Stuff: All You Ever Wanted to Know
About Letter Writing


This article deals specifically with letter writing on the Temagami issue, but the information it contains applies to any similar issue.

If the abuse of our wilderness makes your see red and feel blue, take heart. You can brighten up your day and the world with a letter. Here's the secret to hitting home with the most effective tactic in the campaign for Temagami.

The enormity of the task makes success look hopeless, but do not underestimate the power of a personal letter. South Moresby was won by the thousands of people who telephoned, wrote letters and sent telegrams to the Premier of British Columbia. In the final days, so many letters were received that his office ground to a halt under the onslaught. This is how we will win in Temagami.

Many people tend to drift toward the ease of a postcard or launching a petition. Politicians recognize this so you need thousands to make an impact. These tactics are effective for the less committed who won't take the time to write a letter. But 20 good letters are big guns, counting for 20,000 votes. There is no overestimating their impact.

One of the biggest hurdles in effective letter writing is the groundless fear that you have to be an expert to discuss an issue. This is a fear that many civil servants cultivate. In fact, it is their job to help you understand the technical details. Interestingly, the minister himself will likely know less about the issue than you do.

Letters are used to measure constituents' feelings and can serve as a basis for action. The successful letter applies the three R's: be right, reasonable and repetitive.

Rule 1: State your position clearly and identify a specific request. The most common weakness m letters is being unclear about what you want. In some cases, we've seen letters that could have been written by the loggers or conservationists.

Rule 2: Ask specific, leading questions that require a civil servant to write the response. The strategy is not just to let them know your opinion, but to make them work on your behalf, and keep working until they resolve the issue.

Rule 3: Make it clear you expect an answer.

Rule 4: Send copies to other politicians. Copies or a "cc" are not guaranteed to obtain a response. Individually addressed letters will expand your effectiveness with little extra work. After all, you wrote the letter, so spread your impact far and wide.

Rule 5: Keep a copy and send another to the Temagami Wilderness Society.

Expect a long wait. Ministers are notoriously slow. When your letter arrives at Queen's Park, if it addresses specific facts on the issue, it will be passed down into the bowels of the bureaucracy for some civil servant to respond to.

General letters will be dealt with by a form response written over the Minister's signature. Temagami has become such a large issue that all Ministers have been sent the nearly identical form letter.

What should you expect for an answer?

Response 1: Zero. The Minister has ignored your questions and said absolutely nothing. This is all too frequent.

Response 2: Affirmative, agreeing with your stance. Seldom will you hear this. This is more likely the answer from the Opposition members or a supportive backbencher. If s/he's genuinely on our side, s/he'll appreciate the moral support.

Response 3: Newspeak. This is the current Truth or Policy, which is a selection of the facts in support of their position. Facts to the government are simply whatever can be provided by the bureaucracy. The answer may also take the tactic of trying to overwhelm with technical details.

Now, you've received your response. Ministers live with the fantasy that you'll go away. Here's where the fun begins.

Go back to your first letter and begin a second one. It is this follow-up letter that will be annoying enough to make them take you seriously. This time they will know they can't just brush you off as they have attempted in the first letter.

Tactic 1: Ask again all the questions the Minister didn't answer or didn't answer fully.

Tactic 2: Point out all the inconsistencies between his response and others you have received or with his government's public statements. If you've stuck gold, there'll be inconsistencies within the letter itself. Point them out too.

Tactic 3: Point out the weakness in his arguments.

Tactic 4: Restate your position and make it clear that you expect a response.

Letter-writing is like a slow game of ping pong. It's the second and third letters that start scoring.

A phone call to a politician carries the weight of 100 votes, a letter the weight of 1000. Conventional wisdom!

Sending letters to the Opposition Leaders and critics can often be useful. Sometimes they will warm up and go after the Ministers in the Legislature. Sending to Ministers not directly responsible for Temagami is a sign to the government that everyone is being drawn in and they can no longer avoid taking a stand.

Lest we forget, there is your own MPP. If s/he's a back-bencher, his/her days are quiet and lunches sometimes too long. A phone call or two on any issue tells them they've got an issue they must deal with. Fifteen letters and s/he knows s/he's got a hot issue getting out of control. It'll ruin his/her whole day.

You'll likely get a personal reply and it could sound very informed. The MPP's facts are just newspeak from a Minister or his bureaucrats. (You can fantasize over how some faceless bureaucrat is sweating out how to respond without looking silly.) Once you've got your MPP on the run, keep him there.

Letter-writing parties or just passing around paper and stamps at an event is a good way to get the jump. You might want to consider a contest for the most creative or witty letter.

Don't forget letters to the editor. Local papers almost always print letters. The Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail cannot print every letter they receive - the volume is just too great. But don't be discouraged. Keep it brief, especially for the Star, and remember just one letter in the Star will reach over half a mil-lion people in one day. That's influence.

But whatever technique, if you can get nine of your friends to write a letter too, then you have just leaned 10,000 votes on a politician. Remember, the pen is still mightier than the sword. Have fun.

From the Temagami Wilderness Society, 62 Lesgay Cres., Toronto M2J 2J1.

(CX3576)

See also:
How to Lobby like a Pro
Don't Forget to Write

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