19 April 2011, amended 1 August 2013.
This piece is aimed at Muslim readers, but will be helpful to anyone who wants to write to the media or to a politician.
From time to time, everyone is annoyed by something they read in print or see on television. The easiest thing is to grumble to your friends, but that achieves nothing. It is far better to respond.
I want to share some good practice guidelines for both letters.
Take action yourself instead of leaving it to others.
Be realistic about how much you can do, as it does take time to write a good letter.
If you are not making any written complaints at present, sending just one well written letter a year will be a great improvement. I illustrate below what even a single letter can achieve. There are tens of thousands of British Muslims who have the requisite skills; once you start doing it you can persuade your friends to do the same to magnify the impact.
There are a variety of ways to respond, which I have listed in order of both increasing effort and increasing effectiveness.
In Britain, we live in a free country. When it comes to private correspondence, I have no qualms about writing to any politician or newspaper editor without any fear of retribution. That of course excludes silly behaviour such as making death threats!
When it comes to correspondence that will be seen by the public at large, you need to consider any policies that your employer may have, if you are an employee. Similarly most partnerships have policies regarding what their partners may say in public. You need to ensure in advance that any public correspondence by you is permitted.
For example, while a partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, I could not write about any accounting or tax matters without having the material reviewed internally in advance despite my being a partner. The firm had a simple and understandable goal of ensuring that it spoke with one voice on such matters, despite having nearly 1,000 partners in the UK and over 16,000 staff. Everything I wrote about taxation or Islamic finance while at PwC went through those approval processes, even though I was UK Head of Islamic Finance.
When I wanted to start writing about Muslim community issues, I obtained formal agreement from the firm’s Senior Partner that it was worthwhile for me to do so, and that this was not subject to PwC’s internal processes for writing on tax or accounting matters.
Most importantly, never write anything, whether in a public forum or even in private 1-1 correspondence, that you would be embarrassed to see leaked to the newspapers and sent to every person you know. For example, even though I was very angry, when I wrote my piece on Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, I was conscious that this would potentially be read by all my Muslim friends and all my Jewish friends. That mindset leads you to write carefully.
Even if you write it as carefully as you write a letter, an email makes less impact. There are several reasons for this.
Accordingly, if you are going to put in the effort to compose a good message, you might as well spend the cost of a stamp and send a paper letter.
I was fortunate that my career as a tax advisor gave me extensive experience at letter writing. When I was a junior, my superiors regularly savaged my draft letters, often rewriting them completely. In later years, I found myself doing the same. This experience taught me that writing good letters is a learned skill. On 27 January 2012 I wrote to the Superintendent of the US Military Academy at West Point, and have posted on this website an annotated copy of the email explaining the construction.
Be prepared to spend at least half a day composing a letter which is one A4 page or less. Good letters are not easy to write, and need careful thought before you write the first word. Once you have written the letter, put it aside for a couple of hours, and then review it again with the eyes of a reader. Only send it once you are totally happy with it.
The effort involved is the reason I suggest starting with a goal of sending only one such letter a year.
You need to be clear in your own mind:
Those points then drive the composition.
If the letter is being written for publication in a newspaper, you need to abide by all of the newspaper’s written guidelines regarding length, giving your full name and address etc. As a general point, try to stay well inside the newspaper’s length restriction, as short letters are more likely to get published.
Every mistake in a letter, no matter how small, causes the reader to think less of you. Make several mistakes and the reader will cease to care about what you are writing and see only the mistakes. Even a comma out of place is a mistake.
Do not rely upon spell checkers. Print the letter and read it carefully on paper with a red pen to mark any mistakes. Experience shows that reading things on screen is less accurate than reading the letter when printed on paper.
Unless you are very confident of your ability at spelling, punctuation and grammar, you should also get someone else to check over what you have written.
As soon as you insult the recipient, or accuse him of malevolence, he will stop paying any attention to what you have written. As an illustration, read my letter to the Israeli ambassador after the Gaza flotilla incident.
If you shout at somebody in person, they get annoyed, and if you shout loud enough they cover their ears and stop listening to anything that you are saying.
Exactly the same thing happens if you shout in writing. That includes actions such as:
It is often tempting to make threats when writing. Some are obviously illegal, such as death threats! However making even legal threats is a mistake. It simply puts the reader's back up and turns him against your message.
The people you will be writing to are not stupid. Politicians are aware that voters may stop supporting them, charities that donors may send their money elsewhere, businesses that customers may go to another store, editors that readers may switch to another newspaper. By threatening such action, you are simply insulting the reader’s intelligence, which is not conducive to having your message received well.
If you want to be taken seriously as a correspondent, you need to stick to the facts. See my letter to the Israeli ambassador, which carefully avoids assuming anything about what happened during the flotilla incident.
A private letter does not need to be as short as a letter intended for publication. However if you cannot say something in one A4 page, you have probably failed to think carefully enough about what you want to say.
Readers have short attention spans. It is far better to get one or two points over which the recipient absorbs, than send a letter with 10 points which the reader does not take in.
Copied below is my private letter to a newspaper editor. It is anonymised as I promised to keep it confidential. While one of my friends thought it was far too mild, it achieved a personal reply from a busy, very senior editor. Reading between the lines of the reply it is clear that the editor understood that the piece I was complaining about had fallen below the standards the newspaper set itself. That was all I needed to achieve with this one letter.
As an exercise, I suggest analysing my letter to figure out the reason particular words and phrases are included.
12 xxxx 2009
Editor in Chief
Dear Mr aaaa
This private letter is not for publication, and will also not be publicised by bbbb.
I was dismayed when a friend pointed out cccc’s piece “dddd” which appeared on your website on Tuesday. It drove a Jewish friend to describe cccc in terms that are unprintable.
I don’t know what qualifies cccc to write about Islamic finance. My own credentials are summarised in the Appendix to this letter. I am confident that as Editor in Chief you have accuracy standards for your newspaper, but don’t know the extent to which you expect your columnists to abide by them. cccc’s column was so poor that I can imagine eeee turning in his grave!
In my professional capacity, I regularly brief journalists from a number of publications, including the Financial Times, on Islamic finance. If you would like one of your financial reporters to gain an understanding of the subject, please ask them to contact me via the bbbb office. Equally, if you are willing to give me some space I would be happy to write a piece correcting the many mistakes in the one by cccc.
I look forward to hearing from you.
APPENDIX - This comprised 2/3 of an A4 page setting out my Islamic finance credentials.
PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL
Mr Mohammed Amin
Dear Mr Amin
Thank you for taking the trouble to write and I, too, would be grateful if our correspondence could be kept private.
Firstly, let me stress that cccc is a respected columnist and, as such, I don't attempt to censor her views. That said, it should also be stressed that the views you are referring to only appeared in a contribution she made to the ffff's website and not in her column in the paper which is her main platform.
For my part, I take on board the points you make and may well take up your generous offer to brief some of our journalists on the subject of sharia finance.
With kind regards,
Even as a single writer, you can make a difference, since a well written letter can change the mind of the recipient. I have achieved that on several occasions. That recipient may be an important newspaper editor or politician. Even if the recipient does not change their mind, a well written letter will still have an impact on them.