If you’ve ever struggled to fill your letters page, you’re not alone.
Over the past few months, I’ve talked to dozens of editors who tell me that their letters page could use a boost. Some say they’d be thrilled to get a handful of letters each issue. Others admit they’d be delighted to get even one.
There’s no question that it can be dispiriting to spend months on a magazine and hear crickets once it’s published.
It also means you might be missing out on larger opportunities. Good letters pages can lead to cool new story sources and ideas. They can measure the pulse of your alumni community. They can help you show your magazine’s value to your institution.
So how do you make the letters page of your magazine more robust and meaningful?
Today I’m excited to share some insider secrets from the University of Chicago Magazine. (By the way, this post is focused on letters pages, but you can use many of the principles and action steps here to boost feedback in other places: class notes, social media, web comments. Think expansively!)
The University of Chicago Magazine has a killer letters section. Not only is it common for the publication to get 10 or more letters for each quarterly issue, but they’re also typically meaty letters about specific stories in the magazine and about university priorities. (You won’t find any meaningless “Keep up the great work!” notes in the bunch.)
University of Chicago’s Laura Demanski
What are they doing right? To find out, I went straight to the source: editor Laura Demanski.
Demanski, who’s quick to credit the foundational work of longtime editor Mary Ruth Yoe, admits that building an enviable letters section isn’t easy. “I have a fair amount of stress about inadvertently killing our letter section,” she jokes. “I’ve always been super attentive to it and worried when we don’t get a lot of letters.”
In a longer conversation, she shared how she and her team work on this section, as well as all the tiny, under-the-radar efforts that are required to make a letters section great. I extracted some of my favorite principles and action steps from the conversation and shared them below.
I feel confident that you’ll come away with at least one idea to strengthen your letters page for your very next issue.
Principle #1: Strong letters pages are a reflection of the investment a school has already made into its alumni community.
“I often think of our alumni news and our letters as a package. We have class correspondents for the college news, and we give them quite a lot of space compared to many of our peers. There are distinct voices in there, both from the correspondents themselves and the alumni who are quoted. I think it contributes to this larger sense that we want to hear from you.”
- Erin adds: This is incredible. I have a whole other post about class notes coming later this year, but think about how easy it would be for an alum to write a letter to the editor when they already see plenty of familiar voices in their magazine. It actually feels like a magazine that belongs, in part, to them.
Principle #2: People want to talk to humans, not institutions.
“We want to create the sense that there are people here. It’s not just ‘the institution’ or ‘the magazine.’ ”
- Erin adds: Having a unique, authentic voice is important, and even small details make a difference. For example, I can’t stand it when I look to contact an editor and the email address is something like firstname.lastname@example.org. This makes me feel like I’m sending my message straight to a cloud-based trash can.
Principle #3: A good letters page requires as much work as a story of a similar length.
“We take our time editing the letters page. We edit for clarity and concision. Then we fact-check all the letters. We also have fun with our headlines.”
- Erin adds: They do! In a recent issue, an alum grumbled about the fact that the institution informally referred to itself as UChicago. The headline? Ew, Chicago.
Principle #4: The letters page can be an ongoing conversation. (Within reason.)
“We get many letters in response to other letters. Sometimes the dialogue goes on for awhile, and the initial occasion for the letter-writing starts to get so far away that we will cut it off at some point, but we like to see readers in conversation with each other. In the issue that’s coming out soon we have the third round of a debate about how the Supreme Court should work.”
- Erin adds: Even with a quarterly publishing schedule, it’s not easy to keep momentum going for a conversation. It’s even tougher if you’re publishing three or fewer times per year. When schools cut the number of issues they publish, the letters page is likely to suffer.
How to make your letters section better
Now that you know some of the overarching principles that are required to make a letters section as good as it can be, what can you do to get that process started? Here are a few ideas:
Action Step #1: Ask for what you want
“I’ll explicitly encourage letters or feedback in my editor’s notes. It’s an important page because it’s in a more personal voice, and that sometimes puts me in one-on-one correspondence with readers. Sometimes we get letters as a result.”
- Erin adds: Banish “We welcome your feedback!” from your pages in favor of a clear, specific request.
Action Step #2: Encourage commenters to expand their ideas
“If there’s a perceptive tweet or an online conversation that wasn’t originally meant as a letter to the editor, we might ask the reader to think about making it into one. We’re pretty proactive about that if we see the signs of something promising.”
- Erin adds: The two tips above share a common theme: Sometimes letters to the editor don’t start as a letter to the editor! You can help an alum transform the kernel of an idea into a meaningful letter.
Action Step #3: Expand your definition of letter-worthy topics
“Our guidelines invite letters about the contents of the Magazine or about the life of the University. We happily publish letters that don’t have to do with [a story] we published but with general University news.”
Action Step #4: Mine your past
“In every issue we publish a letter from the archives under the headline ‘Blast from the Past.’ Obviously, it helps to have decades worth of back issues. We find some fun things there, and we think this contributes to the sense that writing to the Magazine is an ongoing tradition that readers can take part in.”
Action Step #5: Reach out to your writers
“After a story comes out, I sometimes talk to the writer about any response they’ve gotten directly. In our Fall 2018 issue we published a story about cancer and immunotherapy by a writer who lives in the neighborhood and knows many alumni, and who shared some of the sidewalk conversations she had about it. Even if that doesn’t result in a letter, it’s a useful way to get feedback.”
- Erin adds: Your sources may also hear feedback worth following up on. Read here to find out how one editor systematically connects with quoted sources from every issue.
For me, the big takeaway here is that building a great letters page requires consistent, intentional work over many years. But the payoff is a magazine that alumni feel connected to and value.
Have your own tips about getting more letters to the editor? Let me know!