The Art of Submission: Cover Letters
Contributor
Written by
Emily Lackey
February 2015
Contributor
Written by
Emily Lackey
February 2015

I can’t think of anything I’d rather write less than a cover letter.

 

Maybe something morose and rife with emotional context like an obituary or eulogy, but other than that, cover letters really are the worst.

 

It’s the talking about yourself ad nauseum that gets me. That and the fact that you’re summarizing information that the reader can easily find outlined and elaborated on in your resumé. I threw a legitimate tantrum the other night when I had to write one for a job. My boyfriend read it over offered some feedback: it wasn’t specific enough, it didn’t mention any of my publications, and it didn’t really convey my passion for writing. I kicked my feet under the covers.

 

Didn’t my five years of graduate school studying literature and writing convey that? Didn’t that whole section in my resumé listing my publications cover that? What more was there to say?

 

Thankfully, the cover letters necessary for submitting your work to literary journals and magazines are much more succinct.

First off, there’s no need to brag about yourself. There’s no need to elaborate on where you went to school and what your GPA was and that nice bit of feedback your workshop gave you on that one story you wrote. The cover letter that you send along with your story or essay or poems should include nothing that is not absolutely necessary. And, let's face it, if it may or may not even be read by the editor evaluating your work, there's no use stressing over anything more than that. 

 

So, here is what is necessary:

  1. Your cover letter should be addressed to a person. Perform the few finger clicks it takes to visit the journal’s masthead and find the name of the fiction/poetry/nonfiction editor who will ultimately be deciding on your work. Never send your work to whom it may concern. Never send it to the editor-in-chief. Be specific. This is your one shot to be personal and to show that you're not scattershotting this piece to as many journals as you can, as quickly as possible.
  2. Your cover letter should begin with a sentence that contains the title (and sometimes word count) of your piece. That is it. This sentence should not describe the merits of your story or the life event that inspired your essay or the epiphany you had while writing your poem. It should not be a five-paragraph analysis of the reoccurring syntactical voids in your genre-defying piece about hunger. It should read something like this: “I am attaching my story ‘The Hills Like White Elephants’ (4,689 words) for your consideration,” or “Thank you for considering my story ‘How to Be The Other Woman’ (3,748 words) for publication in your journal.”
  3. Your cover letter should contain a sentence on where you have been published. A word to the wise: Don’t write this bit in the third person. Stay consistent with your perspective and make it simple: “My work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Jerseyan and The Alsace-Lorraine Review.”
  4. It should be signed with your full name, address, e-mail, and phone number.

 

That’s it, guys. Really. It’s simple and entirely uncomplicated. There is some room for flare, but be careful with this. You don't want to incite the ire of your reader or say anything that might make them at all biased toward your work, unless it is positive bias.

Some other things you may want to mention but should only do sincerely:

  • A story that you read in the journal that inspired you to submit your work. This shows two very important things: that you actually read the journal and that you believe your work is in line with what they are already publishing.
  • If you had a memorable and extensive conversation with the editor at AWP/a book signing/a release party. That stuttering conversation I had with Roxane Gay at AWP at which I thanked her for contributing to our journal does not count. That time I lurked by the New England Review table and asked the intern working the book table what time the reading starts does not count. But that conversation I had with the editor about how helpful her feedback had been on my story, during which she encouraged me to submit again? That definitely counts. Include that for sure.
  • This is a new one for me and therefore something I’m still cautious of exploiting, but if you are friends with a writer who has been published in the journal and who thinks your work would be appropriate for it, you might want to mention that. Like I said, I’ve only done this once, and that piece is still “in progress” in Submittable, so I’m not sold on its efficacy just yet. Do this gingerly if you must and don’t do it all the time. And don’t, for the love of all that is holy, name drop or lie about it. Talking about your good friend Alice Munro and how much she values your work in a cover letter isn’t going to get you anything other than an eye roll. 

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