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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Full Disclosure: What to Include in Your Cover Letter

Our roundtable discussion continues thanks to questions you and others have posed to us via Twitter. Keep those questions coming, and we'll be answering them periodically. For anyone who's already asked, we'll be posting more answers and discussions soon!

Photo by: footage
Many thanks to Ron Allan (@RonAllan2), who tweeted us the following question and prompted more discussion among our editorial group:
I'm new to this world, so I'd like to know what should go in cover letters when submitting short stories.
Paper Darts, Holly Harrison     The most vital part of a cover letter is a demonstrated familiarity with the magazine you’re submitting to. That doesn’t mean addressing the editors by name, necessarily—it’s a feel for the magazine’s voice and the appearance that a given piece was submitted thoughtfully and not blindly. We got a letter not long ago that said “I am waiting for an old guard in the major-journal editorial world to pass on and be replaced by a more recognizable group of doorkeepers—ones who can appreciate the use of profanity, for example.” That could have gone to any number of magazines, but it still felt tailored to Paper Darts—especially after the author referenced our recent fiction contest. Other things to note: Flattery gets you far. (That’s only half a joke.) A cover letter with a long list of semi-prestigious places that an author has been published previously will make us look differently at a given piece—and not in a negative way. (Yes, that’s superficial.) A well-written, funny cover letter will make us fall in love with an author. We got a letter the other day that said, “I am a real slave to aesthetics, which is why I have a beautiful dog, which is annoying for us, since we don’t like strangers, but strangers love beautiful dogs. My dog wears eyeliner and paints his nails.” We liked the piece already, but after reading that we began plotting ways to become BFF with the submitter. Of course, it’s always the quality of writing that determines whether a piece gets accepted in the end, and if a good piece is accompanied by a snobby or piece-of-shit cover letter (or no cover letter at all), we won’t change our minds about accepting it… probably.

Hayden’s Ferry Review, Sam Martone     I like what Holly has to say about demonstrating familiarity with the magazine in the cover letter—it’s always good to hear from fans, especially if they want to highlight a specific story or poem that influenced them to submit or moved them in some other way. Another way to demonstrate this familiarity is with work you choose to submit. This seems like a no-brainer, but we get a lot of pieces that, while finely written, aren’t necessarily right for the magazine. The better you know the publication you’re sending to, the better your chances of finding a home for your writing!

Gulf Coast, Zachary Martin and Karyna McGlynn     Perhaps the better question is what shouldn’t go into a cover letter when submitting to a literary journal. We don’t need excerpts from your colleagues’ or professors’ workshop comments on the story, and we don’t need your interpretation of what the story “means.” Writers who have just begun trying to publish their work worry way too much about cover letters. Frankly, cover letters are kind of an outmoded concept in today’s world of literary journals. Most journals—including ours—receive the majority of their submissions online, and online submission managers often don’t provide a clear space for the classic “cover letter,” so many writers forgo them altogether. (We’re fine with that.) That said, if you’re going to write something in the “comments” field for your submission, a casual, friendly—and, above all, brief!—note that demonstrates your familiarity with the journal will do the trick. Holly is right to say that “flattery gets you far,” because demonstrating familiarity with the journal tells us that you’ve chosen to submit your work to us because you think it fits our aesthetic, rather than submitting because you’re blanketing lit journals with your submission based solely on their name, their reputation, or what some computer program told you might be a good place to submit. It might be worth noting if the piece is part of a longer project or an excerpt from a novel, but otherwise, let the work speak for itself.

The Stinging Fly, Declan Meade     Politeness. It's easy enough to find out the editor's name and to address him or her directly. Good grammar. Keep it short. No need to say anything much other than that you are submitting the enclosed or attached story. I may read a cover letter when the submission first comes in, but then we will put it to one side and we keep all the submissions together in a separate pile. I've never changed my opinion of a story based on a cover letter. It may inform my opinion of the writer, though.

Paper Darts, Holly Harrison     I have an admittedly short attention span, but, strangely, I’m turned off by the short “I’m submitting some poetry, and it’s attached” type letter. We receive all our submissions through Submittable, and there’s no point in only telling us something we can already see. Short and sweet isn’t a bad thing, but try to contribute something useful—or at least witty—to the conversation.

Paper Darts, Courtney Algeo     Gosh, we’ve received some cover letters that were just so out of this world that the author, accepted work or not, sticks with us. In fact, a cover letter recently came in and we all kind of decided we wanted to publish the piece (which is nonfiction). Whether our wonder over this amazing cover letter is due to a “traditional cover letter” being a rarity these days, or because this one in particular was really amazing and thoughtful, is, I guess, up for debate.

Indiana Review, Katie Moulton     A cover letter should contain as much information as an album cover: the writer’s name and the title of the work. (It should also include contact information and indicate whether the writer would like the manuscript returned—but that didn’t fit in with my image.) It’s not a resume or book jacket, plastered with testimonials of your genius. Though a brief bio is fine, your previous accolades and publications will not sway our decision on whether to publish your work. (Besides, if your work is accepted, we will ask you for a bio in an email with lots of exclamation points and situation-appropriate emoticons.)

Hayden’s Ferry Review, Sam Martone     I'm only one person on a staff of nine editors, plus a whole slew of readers, so I can only speak for myself here, but I honestly don't care what's in the cover letter. I usually don't read them until after I've read the submission, and the information contained therein varies from a third-person bio with publications to a simple "here's my story for your consideration." Cover letters are useful places to indicate if you're a previous contributor to the magazine. For HFR, specifically, they're good for international submissions, as the international editors always like to know a bit about the translator and the work being translated. I think it comes down to whatever you're most comfortable with. If you want to tout your achievements, go ahead, but if you want to tell us nothing at all, that's fine, too. I'm sure there are readers on staff who appreciate some information about the writer rather than none, but ultimately our decisions come down to the work itself. Usually, magazines will indicate in their submission guidelines if they want something specific in the cover letter, so always make sure you read through guidelines for every publication you submit to. Cover letters are also places ripe for faux pas, so it is best to avoid doing things like addressing a cover letter to Hayden's Ferry Review with "To the poetry editors at Gulf Coast." More often, though, the faux pas comes in other forms: submitting when submissions are closed, sending to the wrong genre, submitting more than one story at a time, etc. Again, these are prime reasons to always read submission guidelines thoroughly.

Gulf Coast, Zachary Martin and Karyna McGlynn     If it makes you feel any better, Sam, we always get a few cover letters that open with, “To the editors at Third Coast.”

Paper Darts, Holly Harrison     I’d like to add that you should avoid using Mr./Mrs./Ms., especially if you are uncertain of the sex of your addressee.

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Ray said...

I have to admit the comments from Paper Darts depressed me.

Lit mags are all over the map about what they want in a cover letter, and many of their preferences are impossible to keep track of or even research..."if you don't address the editor by name, you're lazy"..."we have six editors so don't presume to address them by name"..."DO NOT address an editor by name unless you have a personal relationship with them" (seriously!)..."we don't care about your previous credits"..."we want to see your previous credits but no more than 6"..."make that 3"..."let the work speak for itself"...."flatter us and make us feel sexy"..."bios are boring"..."you must include a bio"...

You must follow all these contradictory instructions in a 2x2 inch box in Submittable without making any mistakes. If you make mistakes you and your good bag and your cheap shoes will be mocked, 'cause you're a rube, a well scrubbed, hustling rube, and you're not quite right for [Insert Lit Mag Title].

So I opt for the simple.


Attached is my short [fiction|memoir|essay], "Title". I hope you can find a place for it in [Lit Mag Title].

Thanks for reading.



Which I figure is polite and informal and walks a narrow line that offends the least number of editors. But it would irritate Paper Darts and apparently the cover letter really does matter, not just the submitted work? Dunno what to think.

Lorri said...

With the changes over the last several years in submitting and publishing online, it seems reasonable to expect that cover letters would change too. A formal cover letter used to be the standard, but with the increased volumes of submissions, I would think editors would want to get right to the writing.

Since editors are all over the board with what they want in that letter, why make us guess? Just put a short note in the Submission Guidelines so we can avoid annoying you before you even get to our story.

Satyesm said...

I agree with Lori. Readily templates of cover letters can be considered as spam now. HRs are more on professional, yet creatively written cover letters.

Unknown said...

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