Action Activity 5
The Power of the Pen:
Writing Letters for Human Rights


Participants plan, execute, and assess a letter-writing action about a human rights issue of concern to them. Note: Participants should be offered a range of topics and positions to ensure that their letters are freely undertaken and reflect their own views.

Time: Variable
Materials: Stationery and envelopes, stamps
Setting: Upper Elementary School - Adult groups
Links: An appropriate follow up for almost every activity in Part III. Excellent for ESL and adult literacy programs.

PART A: Planning the Letter

1. Define: Help participants identify the issue that they wish to write about, which may develop from a particular unit of this text, a service learning project, or an issue of personal concern. Arrange participants with similar concerns in small groups.

2. Strategize: Working in small groups, strategize about to whom to write:

  • Is this a local, state, national, or international issue?

  • Is this an issue that needs to be more widely known? Would a letter to the editor of a newspaper be effective? What community response is desired?

  • Is this an issue that needs attention from government agencies? Which agencies are involved? What response is desired?

  • Is this an issue about which legislation is needed? Who are the legislators involved? What response is involved?

3. Research: Work cooperatively to gather the information needed to write an effective letter.

  • Verify and expand your information.

  • Identify the best person(s) to whom to write and gather the needed addresses.

PART B: Writing the Letter

1. Discuss the following tips on how to write an effective letter. See Sample Letter to the Editor for a product of these tips.

  • Identify yourself. If you are a student, mention your age or grade in school. If you write as a class, mention your school’s name.

  • Define the issue as specifically as possible.

  • If you ask for a response, make clear what you are asking for.

  • Keep the letter as brief as possible to get your concerns across.

  • Always be polite.

  • Stick to information you have verified. Do not make claims you cannot support with facts.

  • Use the correct forms for both the letter and the envelope. Write carefully and neatly.

  • If possible, keep a copy of your letter.

2. Go over the parts of a letter and envelope, pointing out that a written letter is more effective.

3. Ask participants to write drafts of their letters. When they have finished, ask them to form groups of three. These groups should take responsibility for editing each other’s letters to make them polished enough to send to a head of state or an editor.

4. Ask participants to write final drafts of their letters incorporating peer-editing comments and correctly address an envelope. Encourage them to mail their letters.

PART C: Writing for Special Situations

1. Writing a Letter to the Editor: The following suggestions will improve your chances of getting published:

  • Look for any rules printed in the publication to which you plan to write. They are usually found at the end of the "Letters to the Editor" section. Or telephone or e-mail the publication to ask for special instructions.

  • Follow the suggestions for effective letter writing.

  • Your subject matter should be of current interest or relevance to readers.

  • Never accuse anyone of anything without proof. Never slander anyone. Remember that you want to solve problems, not create them.

  • If you think something should be done, give a few reasons why.

  • Never send a publication an "open letter" addressed to a public official. It probably won’t be published.

  • Don’t send the same letter to more than one newspaper. Newspapers like original work.

  • If your letter is printed, don’t be surprised or upset if it has been shortened to fit the limited space available.


When the first 200 letters came, the guards gave me back my clothes. Then the next 200 letters came, and the prison director came to see me. When the next pile of letters arrived, the director got in touch with his superior. The letters kept coming and coming: three thousand of them. The President was informaed. The letters still kept arriving, and the President called the prison and told them to let me go.

-A released prisoner of conscience from the Dominican Republic

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  Human Rights Fundamentals The Right to Know Your Rights Activities Taking Action for Human Rights Appendices