How to: Write a letter to your local paper about cycling

How to: Write a letter to your local paper about cycling

If you're tired of reading complaints and negative letters about cycling in your local paper, why not slay the myths about cycling or write something more positive, and let the editor know why life is better by bike. Here's some advice from Cycling UK Head of Campaigns Duncan Dollimore.

Last month, former Transport Secretary Grant Shapps caused confusion with calls for mandatory licensing of people who cycle. Within hours he was rowing back on these proposals, but the damage was done, with multiple media outlets running the story and then subsequently the letters pages were full of factually inaccurate or inflammatory complaint letters about cycling or cyclists.

As usual, one of our stalwart Cycle Advocacy Network local representatives John Thompson did what he and some of our other volunteers and supporters do so well, he wrote to his local paper to put across a different view. He explained why registration for cyclists was such a bad idea. It was one of many letters John has had published in the Eastern Daily Press.

The anti-cycling narrative

Too often, the simple, healthy, convenient and environmentally friendly activity of pedalling from one place to another is framed in both national and local media as some form of nuisance or inconvenience to others. Of course, we have all the information, facts and statistics to show otherwise, but if the publication only receives letters from people complaining about people on bikes, there’s a danger the editor will assume that everyone thinks the same.

Furthermore. if someone’s regularly reads their local news and only sees an anti-cycling narrative, there’s a danger they’ll assume the complaints are valid, and more widely held than they really are. 

It would be good to redress the balance a bit and help cyclists and the Cycle Advocacy Network representatives to reframe the narrative where they live. 

Our guide to writing to your paper

Letters in your local paper are an effective way of initiating debate, debunking myths, promoting the good of cycling and also increasing awareness of your local campaign group. While submitting a letter does not guarantee publication, there are a number of things you can do to help your point stand out.

1. Know your publication

It should go without saying that you will stand a much better chance of publication if you are familiar with the paper you’re trying to publish in, its audience and the type of letters it publishes already. While there will be a generic address to submit your letter to, if you can find out who edits the Letters Page, try to make contact directly. If you’re a local campaigner, make an introduction to the editor explaining who you represent when you submit your first letter, and if your letters are up to scratch, then you may well find in the future you’re approached to talk about particular issues.

2. Be topical

It’s often easier to see your letter in print if you’re responding to an article, comment piece or other letter that has already been published. Make sure to reference this in your own letter. Likewise, if there’s an issue we’re all facing, whether that’s the environment, a pandemic, road safety or anything else, there can often be a justifiable interest for publishing your thoughts too.

3. Be timely

If you’re responding to an issue as per the above, make sure you do so in a timely matter. It’s no good writing a letter that is addressing points made a fortnight ago in the paper, or talking about an issue that is no longer current. News moves on.

4. Be local

This is your local paper – they want your thoughts on what is relevant to the patch they cover and where you live.

5. Be concise

The Times is notoriously strict on the length and format of the letters it publishes, and while your local paper might not be so rigid, it pays to take some lessons from the nationals. This means be concise – aim to write no more than 250 words (for The Times – it’s much less). Space can be at a premium in papers, so you’re much more likely to be published if you make your point in fewer words - not to mention more powerful in your message.

6. Be to the point

Make one point in your letter – not several. This doesn’t just help you remain concise, but also maintains focus on the issue at hand.

7. Be truthful

Don’t lie in your letter or generalise – back up your point with facts. Cycling UK’s briefings and statistics pages will often have everything you need.

8. Be persistent

A failure to be published does not mean you won’t ever be published. Letter writing is an art, and takes time to perfect – and even then you’re not guaranteed publication, so keep at it! 

Of course, you can write a letter to your local paper about anything, and if you want to write about cycling there’s a host of thing you could mention. However if you’re responding to someone else’s letter or a negative story about people who cycle, it’s quite likely that the subject will be covered within one of the ten common questions people ask about cycling, answers to which are all provided in our common questions guide.

So, if you want a 100 words to write to your local paper on why it would be unfair to tax people for cycling, why cyclists don’t always use poorly designed cycle paths, which road users present the greatest risk to pedestrians, or why compulsory licences and number plates for cycles and cyclists are a bad idea, the answers are all in the guide, which you can cut and paste from to help craft your letter.

Where’s that statistic?

If you’re looking for a killer statistic, you’re also unlikely to have to look much further than Cycling UK’s statistics page, which we update every year with the latest key statistics on everything to do with cycling across the UK.

And it’s worth bearing in mind that many people write to their local paper to moan, and with the cost of living crisis there’s much to moan about at the minute, so newspaper editors might be keen to publish a more positive story. Wouldn’t it great if that was about cycling?

But what’s there to be positive about?

Well, we only have data for England at the minute, but in July we revealed that cycling levels were surging this year, as cash-strapped consumers sought to save money and cycle more as fuel prices increased.

So, in addition to all of the other benefits of cycling, and reasons for cycle lanes, you can also tell your local paper or news website how much money you save by cycling - one of the few helpful solutions they’ll hear during the cost of living crisis.

What to say

There’s much you could say, but most newspapers won’t print a lengthy letter, so you may have to pick a key point or points.

Just remember that your local paper wants to know about what's happening in your county, town, city or area - so try to keep a local focus in the letter.

It’s not an essay!

The difficult bit is expressing that in around 200 words, but hopefully our guide will help with that.

If you do write to your paper, please send us a copy to campaigns@cyclinguk.org, particularly if it’s published. And remember, a picture sells a story, so if you’ve got a great photograph which supports what you’re saying in your letter, remember to send it to the editor and to us.

We’ll be looking out for the best letters, whether they’re published or not, and will be highlighting these in the coming weeks, so now’s the time to show off your writing skills or improve them. And if you’ve got a bored teenager festering on the sofa who likes to cycle or has recently jumped back on the bike again, why not nudge them to have a go at writing a letter about cycling. They may discover hidden talents.

Let’s see how many letters you can all get published!

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