How to Write a Cover Letter for a Literary Journal Submission
Why you shouldn’t try to “stand out” in your cover letter
As the publisher of Fiction Attic Press, which publishes flash fiction and essays by new and established writers, I receive a few dozen submissions each month, more if I put out a call for submissions. Over the years, I’ve read thousands of cover letters. Some are good, some are bad, many are forgettable.
It might surprise you to know that the most forgettable cover letters are often the best.
That’s because a cover letter is never a place to be cute — “I live with my seven gerbils and love Swedish Fish!” — and it’s especially not a place to sing your own praises — “This story is a riveting journey into the mind of a madman. It offers a unique perspective on mental illness and will be sure to wow your readers.”
Your cover letter shouldn’t try to explain your story, it shouldn’t be arrogant, and it shouldn’t quote Amazon reviews of self-published books or include phrases like, “Jane Writer‘s work deftly plumbs the intricacies of the human psyche.”
The best thing your cover letter can do is indicate your professionalism so the editor can get past the cover letter and on to the story.
Whether you have zero publications to your name or an impressive bibliography, if your cover letter is professional, most editors will eagerly set the letter aside and begin reading the story. If the letter is unprofessional, on the other hand, editors will approach the story warily, expecting it to be as poorly executed as the letter.
I wanted to share with you a cover letter in which the writer does almost everything right. This letter came in “over the transom” (publishing speak for unsolicited) through Fiction Attic’s Submittable page.
Dear Fiction Attic Press,
Thank you for considering my work. I am an emerging writer with only a small scattering of published pieces. I appreciate all the time and attention my work receives. I look forward to hearing from you.
This is a simultaneous submission. I will withdraw the piece immediately if it is accepted elsewhere.
I am a writer and graduate student in the MA English program at *** University. My work has been published in *** and ***, and is forthcoming in ***. I live in *** with my fiancée, Jane.
Why the letter works:
- The tone is genuine and not boastful.
- The writer expresses appreciation for the work that goes into reading submissions (not necessary at all, but it’s certainly a nice gesture).
- The writer uses a phrase that is a common courtesy of professional letters in any industry: I look forward to hearing from you.
- The writer acknowledges that it is a simultaneous submission. This is not only courteous; it also indicates that the writer has done his homework, understands the world of literary magazines, and knows that most stories are submitted to multiple publications before they are accepted.
- The bio is brief and lends credibility: He is working on an MA, which means he is a serious reader and writer. It’s certainly not necessary to have an advanced degree in English, but if you have one or are pursuing one, you should definitely include it in your letter.
- If you don’t have a creative writing background, no worries. Briefly state what you do. Writer Person is a truck driver living in Modesto. Your profession is probably part of your identity. I am always interested in what a submitter does for a living, and if the writer is a truck driver/park ranger/astrophysicist/hot dog stand owner (pretty much anything other than just a writer), I’m instantly intrigued.
- In the bio, the writer names three publications in which his work has appeared and is forthcoming. Three to four is the maximum number of publications you should name, unless every publication you name is very impressive (Glimmer Train, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, etc). I get a lot of letters in which writers name a dozen publications I’ve never heard of. It’s great if you’ve published in very small journals (after all, Fiction Attic is very small!), but you don’t need to name all of them. The proper way to list publications is this: My work has appeared in ***, ***, ***, and other magazines and anthologies. Or My work has appeared in or is forthcoming from ***, ***, and ***, among others.
- Three sentences is the perfect length for a bio. If you have won literary awards, you can add a sentence after the list of publications stating, My short story, ***, won the *** Emerging Writers Prize. However, resist the temptation to include a long list of third-runner up prizes. I repeat: resist.
- Although it’s certainly not necessary to name your fiancé, including a third sentence provides a nicely rounded biography. Saying where you live and is a perfect way to construct that third sentence. In this case, I found it sweet that he named his fiancé.
- The one thing Joe Writer might have done differently is address the letter to a person instead of to Fiction Attic Press. In the case of Fiction Attic, I am listed on the About page as the editor, and there is also a list of readers. If you have a contact with one of the readers, address the letter to that person. Otherwise, address your letter by name to the person who is listed as the Fiction Editor, Poetry Editor, or Nonfiction Editor.
So, there you have it: the perfect cover letter for a literary magazine submission.
One more tip: although you don’t want your letter to be overly familiar, if you share a genuine connection with the editor, it’s nice to mention it. For example: On a personal note, I noticed that you are an alumnus of The University of Alabama. I was a student there from 2002 to 2006. Roll Tide!
And just one more: Another thing you might mention in your letter is a recent story or two from the publication that you admired, to show that you’ve done your research and understand what kind of work the journal publishes.
Do you write flash fiction? Submit your flash fiction to Fiction Attic Press.
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When I first began submitting my short stories for publication, I had no idea that cover letters existed until I’d chosen to submit my story to a publisher whose submission guidelines required that a cover letter accompany every manuscript. Once aware of cover letters, however, I found myself confused. So I conducted a bit of research in an attempt to discover what type of information should be included in such a letter. If you are just embarking on the writer’s journey and seeking to submit your first short story manuscript, hopefully this article will assist you as some guides on cover letters have helped me in the past.
Despite any advice I offer, however, please be sure to read a publication’s current submission guidelines and only send what the editor(s) request. Disobeying submission guidelines can sometimes lead to an automatic rejection of your short story. Some editors do not require you to send cover letters with your short story manuscripts, but when a cover letter is required try to think of your letter as a courteous, professional introduction to you.
Before we go any further, though, I would like to stress once more that this article was written with mostly a certain type of short story writer in mind–the one who, like myself, is predominately interested in submitting short stories to small press publications that publish genre fiction. Particularly publications like those listed at Ralan.Com whose editors rarely request query letters and are willing to publish unsolicited short story manuscripts. If you are not this sort of writer but still interested in this article, then please grab your magnifying glass and come along with me to take a closer look at cover letters for short stories.
In regards to short story submissions, cover letters are usually brief letters containing one to three short paragraphs, and is most often paper-clipped in front of your manuscript’s first page when you snail mail your submission. If you are submitting your manuscript through email, then your cover letter comes before your story as the main body of your email, and still serves as your introduction. Whether you are submitting through postal mail or email, your cover letter should be single-spaced, written in standard block or semi-block format, and double-spaced between paragraphs. If you are mailing your manuscript, then you should consider typing your cover letter on plain white 8 ½” by 11″ paper, using a font such as 12 point Times New Roman in black. A hardcopy of a cover letter should only be one page in length with your typeface taking up about half of the page.
As stated, the number of paragraphs in a cover letter can vary. But, regardless of how many paragraphs there are, some information that is usually listed in cover letters includes your story’s title and your story’s word count. If you are submitting your manuscript through mail, as opposed to email, you might also want to state that a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) is enclosed, and that there is no need to return the manuscript.
Here are a few other tips you might want to keep in mind when preparing your letter:
1. Remember to keep your letter short. Avoid including any irrelevant personal information that doesn’t pertain to your story submission. There is no need to include your life history or anything else that doesn’t relate to your story. Avoid giving a detailed description of your short story, as well.
2. Make sure to address your cover letter to a specific person whenever possible. Editors’ names are usually listed with a publication’s submission guidelines. When this is not the case, try to research market listings or find the masthead of the publication to locate the editor’s name. If unsure of an editor’s gender, then consider using the editor’s full name; for example, “Dear Pat Lewis,” or “Dear Editor Lewis.” In case of initials, “Dear J. T. Marshall,” or “Dear Editor Marshall,” should be appropriate. Avoid addresing an editor by his or her first name unless the editor has used your first name, or signed his or her first name in subsequent correspondence.
3. Remain positive. Never write about how your story has been rejected in the past, if that is the case. There’s no need to mention that you’re unpublished, either, unless the editor requests such information. Most editors aren’t concerned about whether or not you have been previously published. When they are interested in knowing of your publishing status, it will likely benefit writers. For example, mentioning that you have not been professionally published in your cover letter to the editor at Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine would be appropriate because the editor is especially interested in seeking short stories from such writers. EQMM, as the publication is also called, even has a “Department of First Stories” set up to receive submissions from writers who haven’t been published professionally. Otherwise, don’t worry about mentioning you’re unpublished.
4. Be professional in crafting your letter. Resist making witty comments or statements that hype your story. It’s highly unlikely that an editor won’t appreciate your attempts, and might form a less than favorable view of your submission package. Avoid making self-deprecating remarks about yourself and your writing. It is understandable that you might be nervous about submitting and are grappling with self-doubt about your writing skills, but there’s no need to express those feelings in your letter. And lastly, remember to double-check your spelling and grammar–it matters just as much as it does with your short story manuscript. A cover letter containing misspellings and poor grammar will probably lead an editor to expect the same lack of professionalism in your manuscript.
Below are two samples. Sample A represents a cover letter that would accompany a snail mail submission. Sample B represents one that would accompany an email submission.
Your Telephone Number
Your Email Address
Dear [Editor’s Name]:
Please consider my 2,500-word, previously unpublished manuscript, “Your Story’s Title,” for publication at Any Title Magazine. A self-addressed, stamped envelope is enclosed for your reply. There is no need to return the manuscript should my story not interest you.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Your Telephone Number
Your Email Address
Dear [Editor’s Name]:
Please consider my 2,500-word, previously unpublished manuscript, “Your Story’s Title,” for publication at Any Title Magazine. I have sent my story as an .rtf attachment, as the submission guidelines suggested.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Best wishes on making a good impression with your cover letter, and on achieving your goal of becoming a published author.
About the Author:
C. M. Clifton is an author on http://www.Writing.Com/ which is a site for Writers.