How To Write A Letter

When I began writing a Daily Letter on Climate in January, I tried doing it in the morning. But those mornings also held a five-year-old girl who had to get off to preschool, and students and errands — whew! — it was getting harder and harder to get things done…so one day I doubled up, writing a letter in the morning and a letter at night for the next day.

It worked, and now with almost no exceptions I have an hour or so in the night after my last student has left, my daughter’s been put to bed, and my wife is either napping or grading — and that’s when I write my letter.

I thought it might be useful to share how I go about it, so as I did the letter for May 18th, I opened a new page and cut & pasted successive drafts, showing my working process.

My first step is in some ways the hardest: Find Something To Write About.

Recently I’ve been writing over and over about offshore drilling, the Deepwater Horizon, the actual cost of fossil fuels, etc.

But I’ve been getting bored with the subject, and I’m running out of easy targets. So I decided I’d find something else to work on.

I subscribe to the dk-greenroots google group, and thus receive alerts to diaries on environmental issues as they are posted. Earlier yesterday I noted a piece by A Siegel, and mentally flagged it as it arrived in my inbox.

In the evening I returned and opened it up. A quick skim showed me that I could do something that I really enjoyed with A Siegel’s piece. One of my favorite themes is Chastising The Media, or more accurately, Chastising The Lazy Stupid Negligent Squirrel-Chasing Idiots Who Pretend That What They’re Doing Is Important News.

My first step was to open the linked article, the Washington Post media critic’s column. I cut and pasted the lede paragraph into a “new post” blank.

Then I returned to A Siegel’s diary and cut and pasted the first two paragraphs.

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KURTZ:

As Nashville anchor Bob Sellers watched his city submerged and spent time helping colleagues whose homes were utterly ruined, he was struck by how the disaster remained a largely local story.

A SIEGEL:

Kurtz, just like the Post’s reprinting of the weak AP coverage, fails to note that this extreme rainfall (the greatest and third greatest 24 hour periods of rain in a 48 hour period in the history of weather data in Nashville) and the resultant flooding fit well into the climate change predictions (and realities) of increasing amounts of precipitation falling in extreme weather events, increasing total amounts of precipitation, and greater precipitation (total) for this area of the nation.

As per Jeff Masters,

Tennessee and most of the northern 2/3 of the U.S. can expect a much higher incidence of record flooding in coming decades. This will be driven by two factors: increased urban development causing faster run-off, and an increase in very heavy precipitation events due to global warming. Both factors have already contributed to significant increases in flooding events in recent decades over much of the U.S. According the landmark 2009 U.S. Climate Impact Report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, “the amount of rain falling in the heaviest downpours has increased approximately 20 percent on average in the past century, and this trend is very likely to continue, with the largest increases in the wettest places.”

I now had about 230 words. Other people’s words. I needed to reduce the count to 150 or less, and I needed them to be my words.

What was the real lesson to be learned from reading these quotes next to one another? The thing that jumped out at me was the one-dimensionality of Kurtz’ conception of “local.” As Mr. Sellers noticed, the Southern storms were not treated as nationally relevant….but as Mr. Kurtz fails to notice, things can be localized in time as well as space.

If the media ignores Tennessee and Kentucky because of their location and demographics, then it’s a case of Elite Liberals Ignoring The Real Americans. Witness Bob Sellers:

“On that side of the Hudson, they really lose sight of the rest of the country,” says Sellers, who grew up in Kentucky. “They view it as flyover country. . . . There’s just a feeling among folks here, ‘Look at what the national media are talking about, they’re not giving any attention to this.’ ”

But when they fail to connect the temporal and climatic dots, the media become Enablers of Disaster.

So that would be the core of my letter.

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With the quoted paragraphs in front of me, I generated the following:

Indeed, the media’s coverage of the Nashville crisis remained a “local” story. The national media treated the floods not just in geographical isolation, but in climatic isolation as well. Almost no-one in either print or broadcast media made the point that Nashville is only the latest of many extreme weather events — events which are the predicted consequence of global climate change.

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Okay; so far so good. Let’s add the climatologist’s predictions:

Indeed, the media’s coverage of the Nashville crisis remained a “local” story. The national media treated the floods not just in geographical isolation, but in climatic isolation as well. Almost no one in print or broadcast media pointed out that extreme weather events like the one that devastated Nashville are getting more severe and more frequent — and that this increase is a scientifically predicted consequence of global climate change. Climatologists have been saying it for years: as the climate gets warmer there is more evaporation, which means more moisture in the air, which means that there will be more precipitation.

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Now we need some more scolding of the media. Shame on you, you lazy worthless sons-a-bitches! With a final pair of sentences, I wagged a finger at them:

Indeed, the national media treated the floods both in geographical and climatic isolation, never mentioning that extreme weather (like the floods in Tennessee that devastated Nashville are getting more severe and more frequent — and that this increase is a scientifically predicted consequence of global climate change. Climatologists have been saying it for years: as the climate gets warmer there is more evaporation, which means more moisture in the air, which means that there will be more and heavier storms, rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog, and ice. Another way to say it: scientists told us this was going to happen — but we ignored them. By treating freak weather events as isolated from one another and from a larger trend of increasing precipitation, the media establishment fails to connect the dots, and so minimizes the gravity of the situation. Global warming is real; it is dangerous; it is human-caused — and all the wacky weather we’re having is genuine evidence for it.

This is about 159 words, depending on how you count. It needs to be shorter. I went over each sentence and trimmed some fat.

ONE (before):
Indeed, the national media treated the floods both in geographical and climatic isolation, never mentioning that extreme weather (like the floods in Tennessee that devastated Nashville are getting more severe and more frequent — and that this increase is a scientifically predicted consequence of global climate change.

ONE (after):
Indeed, the national media covered the floods in geographical and climatic isolation, never mentioning that extreme weather (like the floods in Tennessee) is getting more severe and more frequent — and that this is a scientifically predicted consequence of global climate change.

TWO (before):
Climatologists have been saying it for years: as the climate gets warmer there is more evaporation, which means more moisture in the air, which means that there will be more and heavier storms, rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog, and ice.

TWO (after):
Climatologists have been saying it for years: if the climate gets warmer there will be more evaporation, which means more moisture in the air, which means more and heavier storms.

THREE (before):
Another way to say it: scientists told us this was going to happen — but we ignored them.

THREE (after):
Which is to say, scientists said this would happen — but the media ignored them.

FOUR (before):
By treating freak weather events as isolated from one another and from a larger trend of increasing precipitation, the media establishment fails to connect the dots, and so minimizes the gravity of the situation.

FOUR (after):
By treating freak weather events as isolated from one another and from a larger trend of increasing precipitation, the media establishment fails to connect the dots that would reveal a planetary emergency.

FIVE (before):
Global warming is real; it is dangerous; it is human-caused — and all the wacky weather we’re having is genuine evidence for it.

FIVE: (after):
Global warming is real; it is dangerous; it is human-caused — and all that heavy weather is genuine evidence for it.

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Total wordage of the new version: 137 according to MS Word. But it’s still kind of clunky.

Indeed, the national media covered the floods in geographical and climatic isolation, never mentioning that extreme weather (like the floods in Tennessee) is getting more severe and more frequent — and that this is a scientifically predicted consequence of global climate change. Climatologists have been saying it for years: if the climate gets warmer there will be more evaporation, which means more moisture in the air, which means more and heavier storms. Which is to say, scientists said this would happen — but the media ignored them. By treating freak weather events as isolated from one another and from a larger trend of increasing precipitation, the media establishment fails to connect the dots that would reveal a planetary emergency. Global warming is real; it is dangerous; it is human-caused — and all that heavy weather is genuine evidence for it.

*************************************************************************

I tried reversing the fourth and fifth sentences, to end where I began, with media criticism. This one also came out at 135:

Indeed, the national media covered the floods in geographical and climatic isolation, never mentioning that extreme weather (like the floods in Tennessee) is getting more severe and more frequent — and that this is a scientifically predicted consequence of global climate change. Climatologists have been saying it for years: if the climate gets warmer there will be more evaporation, which means more moisture in the air, which means more and heavier storms. Which is to say, scientists said this would happen — but the media ignored them. Global warming is real; it is dangerous; it is human-caused — and all that heavy weather is genuine evidence for it. By treating freak storms as isolated from one another and from a larger trend of increasing precipitation, our media fails to convey the urgency and severity of our planetary emergency.

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Next to go: the pompous “Indeed” at the beginning. Name names, use short words in long clusters and long words in short clusters. Most newspapers like letters to be 150 words or less, so I had a little bit of wiggle room:

Howard Kurtz has it half right: media coverage of extreme weather is both geographically and climatically parochial, never mentioning that such weather (like the floods in Tennessee) is getting more severe and more frequent — and that this is a scientifically predicted consequence of global climate change. Climatologists have been saying it for years: if the climate gets warmer there will be more evaporation, which means more moisture in the air, which means that there will be more and heavier storms. In other words, scientists told us this was going to happen — but the media ignored them. Global warming is real; it is dangerous; it is human-caused — and all that heavy weather is genuine evidence for it. By treating freak storms as isolated from one another and from a larger trend of increasing precipitation, our media fails to convey the urgency and severity of our planetary emergency.

But this version has gotten longer; we’re back up to 146 according to MS Word.

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Let’s tighten things up, shall we?

Watch what I do to sentences One and Two:

Before:

Howard Kurtz has it half right: media coverage of extreme weather is both geographically and climatically parochial, never mentioning that such weather (like the floods in Tennessee) is getting more severe and more frequent — and that this is a scientifically predicted consequence of global climate change. Climatologists have been saying it for years: if the climate gets warmer there will be more evaporation, which means more moisture in the air, which means that there will be more and heavier storms.

After:

Howard Kurtz has it half right: media coverage of extreme weather is geographically and climatically parochial, never mentioning that such events are getting more severe and more frequent — and that climate scientists have been predicting this for years. It’s simple enough: if the climate gets warmer there will be more evaporation, which means more moisture in the air, which means that there will be more and heavier storms.

And to the second half of the letter:

Before:

In other words, scientists told us this was going to happen — but the media ignored them. Global warming is real; it is dangerous; it is human-caused — and all that heavy weather is genuine evidence for it. By treating freak storms as isolated from one another and from a larger trend of increasing precipitation, our media fails to convey the urgency and severity of our planetary emergency.

After:

In other words, scientists said this was going to happen — but the media ignored them. Global warming is real; it is dangerous; it is human-caused — and Nashville’s flooded neighborhoods are genuine evidence of it. By treating freak weather events as isolated from one another and from the larger trend of increasing precipitation, the media establishment becomes complicit in keeping Americans unaware of the gravest threat humanity has ever faced. We can no longer afford to remain ignorant.

Note that instead of an abstract noun phrase (“all that heavy weather”) I used a concrete example (“Nashville’s flooded neighborhoods”). I added an admonition at the end, effectively wiping out all the yardage I’d gained through assiduous editing. The new version clocks in at 145:

Howard Kurtz has it half right: media coverage of extreme weather is geographically and climatically parochial, never mentioning that such events are getting more severe and more frequent — and that climate scientists have been predicting this for years. It’s simple enough: if the climate gets warmer there will be more evaporation, which means more moisture in the air, which means that there will be more and heavier storms. In other words, scientists said this was going to happen — but the media ignored them. Global warming is real; it is dangerous; it is human-caused — and Nashville’s flooded neighborhoods are genuine evidence of it. By treating freak weather events as isolated from one another and from the larger trend of increasing precipitation, the media establishment becomes complicit in keeping Americans unaware of the gravest threat humanity has ever faced. We can no longer afford to remain ignorant.

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Polishing. The word “scientists” appears twice, once in the first sentence and once in the third. This one is 146, and it’s not too bad:

Howard Kurtz has it half right: media coverage of extreme weather is geographically and climatically parochial, never mentioning that such events are getting more severe and more frequent — and that climate scientists have been predicting this for years. It’s simple enough: if the climate gets warmer there will be more evaporation, which means more moisture in the air, which means that there will be more and heavier storms. Global warming is real; it is dangerous; it is human-caused — and Nashville’s flooded neighborhoods are genuine evidence of it. Climatologists said it was going to happen just like this, and the media disgracefully ignored them. By treating freak weather events as isolated from one another and from the larger trend of increasing precipitation, the news establishment becomes complicit in keeping Americans unaware of the gravest threat humanity has ever faced. We can no longer afford to remain ignorant.

*************************************************************************

I replaced the word “both” in the first sentence, and used some italics for emphasis. 147 words:

Howard Kurtz has it half right: media coverage of extreme weather is both geographically and climatically parochial, never mentioning that such events are getting more severe and more frequent — and that climate scientists have been predicting this for years. It’s simple enough: if the climate gets warmer there will be more evaporation, which means more moisture in the air, which means that there will be more and heavier storms. Global warming is real; it is dangerous; it is human-caused — and Nashville’s flooded neighborhoods are genuine evidence of it. Climatologists said it was going to happen just like this, and the media disgracefully ignored them. By treating freak weather events as isolated from one another and from the larger trend of increasing precipitation, the news establishment becomes complicit in keeping Americans unaware of the gravest threat humanity has ever faced. We can no longer afford to remain ignorant.

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And now it’s satisfactory, and it goes off to letters@washpost.com, there to be filed and forgotten. And, of course, it goes up on my blog. Which you’re visiting right now.

While you’re visiting, steal some of my letters. Reverse the clauses, change the tenses, bung in a couple of synonyms, retool a few analogies, sign your name to it, and send it to someone.

I write a letter a day, almost always based on the work of someone who has more knowledge of the issues than I. I do this kind of conversion work every night. I’d be very happy if I could multiply the impact significantly.

Thanks for reading.

[...] 2011 · No Comments For 2010, Warren S made a commitment with a New Year’s Resolution. Every day, another letter to the editor or a politicians about climate change and global warming issues. He deserves more than a tip of the hat for keeping that resolution up through the year and, [...]

[...] 10th, 2010 · No Comments Warren S has made a commitment with a New Year’s Resolution. Every day, another letter to the editor or a politicians about climate change and global warming issues. One of his most recent conclusions is that the rampant inability of traditional media [...]

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