Advice for Very New Writers: Mastering the Cover Letter

The time has come, the Walrus said.

You’ve finished your story, you’ve done your market research, and you’ve found a place you think the story will fit. Your chosen market is Shimmer–quite smart, indeed! You’re ready to properly format your document as per the guidelines (.doc or .rtf), and submit. But before you do, have you written your cover letter?

When a market accepts electronic submissions, you may not think a cover letter is essential to your submission. It’s just a casual email, right? Wrong.

A cover letter is helpful for many reasons. As an editor, I like to know whose story I’m reading. I like to get a feel for the person beyond the story. I don’t like having stories simply thrown at me, which is what it feels like when an author doesn’t include a cover letter.

Your cover letter, or lack thereof, is often the first impression an editor will have of you. You want to present yourself as professional–even if you don’t have any publishing credits. You want the editor to look at the submission and say “this is someone I could work with.” Your story will stand on its own, beyond your cover letter, and plenty of editors don’t read cover letters first, but you’re much better off with a few words there than a gaping, blank space.

So, what’s good in a cover letter and what’s not so good?

Good: Market research. If you’ve researched the market enough to believe your story is a good fit, you should also take the time to explore the staff page. Who edits this publication? To whom are you sending your story? You aren’t simply tossing it into an abyss from which a pale hand will emerge to catch your pages. A real person is on the receiving end of your submission. If a submission comes into Shimmer and it’s addressed “Dear Sir,” you probably haven’t looked at much of the website. “Dear Editors” is perfectly acceptable, as Shimmer has a variety of editors on staff. It’s also okay to address a specific editor, especially if they had your last submission.

Good: The essentials. “Please find my 2000-word story, ‘Mad Monkey Robots on Mars’ attached for your consideration. Signed, Me.” Even if that’s the whole of your cover letter, it’s delightful. Word count, title, your name.

Bad: Do not believe that you can sneak a longer story in by simply not including the word count in your cover letter. If you submit a 10,000 word story, when 5,000 is our upper limit, we’re still going to notice.

Good: Introducing yourself. Include a few credits if you have them. If you don’t, don’t stress. We all started with a blank slate. “My fiction has appeared or will soon appear in X, Y, and Z.” If you are part of writers organizations, you can certainly mention that, too; likewise if you have attended Clarion, Odyssey, or another writing workshop.

Bad: Jokes, summaries, or jokes about your summary.

Good: A closing. Thanking the editor for their time, and signing your name. Always include your name. If you write under a pseudonym, juggling names can be a feat, but there’s an easy way to handle it. Always sign your cover letter with the name you’d like to be called. (You can also make this clear on your manuscript–legal name in the upper left corner, pseudonym on the byline.)

Bad: attaching more than one file to your submission. At this point in the process, we don’t need an outline, a summary, an individual bio sheet, or anything beyond your cover letter (email) and your story.

Good: We look forward to reading your stories–and your cover letters!

Now it’s your turn…

How do you approach cover letters? Like them? Hate them? Have questions that weren’t covered here? Tell us what you think in the comments.

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