Friday, November 18, 2011

Tips for Writers: The Cover Letter

Some writers confuse cover letters with query letters. Indeed, there may be some overlap between the two, and their purposes are similar, but they are different beasts. I’ll deal with query letters another time, but in short they are letters sent to agents or editors in which a book is described and supporting information (bio and publication credits) is provided. (There are other sorts of queries as well—following up on a previous submission, or putting forth an idea for an article or other project.) The purpose of the query letter is to get the agent or editor to ask to see the book manuscript or proposal, and to that end it must include a compelling synopsis of the material. Query letter writing is almost an art unto itself.

A cover letter, on the other hand, is much more straightforward. As the name suggests, it is the letter that is included with short work—a short story, an essay, or a poem, for example—that is being submitted for consideration by a magazine. The purpose is to get the magazine to read the material, but in this case that material is already in the hands of the magazine. There is no need, therefore, to describe it or summarize it in any way. In fact, most magazine editors will be put off if you do that. The'll be especially put off if you say how wonderful it is, or how wonderful someone else thinks it is. With short work, the writing stands on its own. All you have to do is name the piece being submitted, provide a brief biography, and list publication credits (or other relevant credentials). (Some cover letters are simply transmittal letters, accompanying work that has already been requested, in which case the bio and credits can be omitted.)

The cover letter would look something like this [Note: letterhead includes contact information including phone and email, but if this is going by email then I add that following the signature]:

November 18, 2011

Ronald Spatz, Editor
Alaska Quarterly Review
University of Alaska Anchorage
3211 Providence Drive (ESH 208)
Anchorage, AK 99508

Dear Ronald Spatz,

I am submitting this story for your consideration. I would welcome any response you may have to “The Nations of Witness.”

My short story collection, In an Uncharted Country, was published in September 2009 by Press 53 and my novel in stories, What the Zhang Boys Know, is forthcoming in 2012. My work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Bellevue Literary Review, Blackbird, Cream City Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. I hold a J.D. and an M.A. in English from Indiana University and an M.F.A. in Fiction from Queens University of Charlotte. I have received fellowships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
Clifford Garstang

Simple, straightforward, businesslike. And the same letter can be used with email and online submission managers.

A few things to note:
Do not summarize or comment about the work being submitted.

·       Do not include every publication credit you have. Pick the best ones. Here’s a note from Writer’s Relief that may help you decide which credits to include: “From Best to the Not so Best”. As that article emphasizes, not all publication credits are equal.

·       Include only the relevant biographical details. Frankly, I should leave out my JD in the above cover letter unless I’m submitting to one of the few literary journals that is connected to a law school. But I do think it says something about my general level of education, so I leave it in. What is relevant may depend on the publication you are submitting to. On the other hand, if something shows your seriousness as a writer—attendance at a writers’ conference or a fellowship to a writers’retreat, for example—that should be included.

·       Do not invite the recipient to visit your website for more information. It’s okay to include your web address, but the editor won’t generally want to take the time to check.

·       Address the letter in accordance with the magazine’s guidelines. It is generally best to use the name of the actual person whose attention you want, even if you realize the letter will be opened and read by someone else (an intern, a managing editor, or whoever). I don’t think most editors are terribly offended if the letter is addressed to the Editor, or the Fiction Editor, instead of to a name, however. At least I’m not, and otherwise I’m pretty easy to offend, so I assume this isn’t a big deal.

·       Keep it simple and short. Never more than one page. The idea is get the editor to read the story or essay or poem, not the letter.


NWPHL said...
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NWPHL said...
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Mark Danowsky said...

Good tip. I would like to point out that other sources advise against inviting editors to respond to your submission(s). They seem to think this is presumptuous. Also, it is my understanding that many editors feel slighted when authors fail to address them by name (using Dear Editor), especially if the information is readily (and easily) available on the magazine's website.

Clifford Garstang said...

I'm not too concerned about an invitation to respond. The editor either will or won't. As an editor, I'm not bothered by it. Likewise, I'm not bothered when a submitter sends to Dear Editor or Dear Fiction Editor. The problem with many magazines is that their guidelines conflict with their masthead (they ask that the letter be addressed to the Fiction Editor, but there is none named) or there are multiple Editors for the same Genre. Again, few editors I know are bothered by this, especially because they are rarely the first readers anyway.

jaylen watkins said...

As the purpose of both are same there can be some overlap, but they are different. And cannot be clubbed with each other.

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The most important thing that, you have given the formate.
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