Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Cover Letters

I prefer to see a cover letter. Some editors don't care one way or the other. In either case, the best cover letters are brief and to the point. A good generic one says (1) what's being submitted; (2) the word count; (3) the writer's contact info; (4) (optional) a quick bio and/or publication credits (3 to 4 credits maximum); and (5) ends with some polite phrase thanking the editor for reading the submission. (Of course, if a publication has specific requirements for cover letters, follow them.)

For instance:

Dear Fiction Editor,

Attached is my short story "The Rats Are Breeding." It is approximately 2000 words.

My contact info is:
Tommy Writer
49 Pissant Drive
Whackville, PA 99999
555-555-5555
tommy@writerfamily.com

My work has appeared in It Makes My Ears Bleed, Toe Fungus, Bleep Blop and other publications.

Thank you for considering my story.

Sincerely,
Tommy

The nice thing about a cover letter like this is that it allows the writer to introduce him-/herself, gives the editor everything he/she needs, and it does this with little risk of doing any of those things many editors associate with unsuccessful submissions. Because everything you put beyond that basic information does run the risk of making a cover letter come across as less professional. This is not to say that adding more will always in all cases annoy all editors. However, it does run the risk of triggering negative expectations, without offering the writer any benefits. With cover letters, less is more.

In particular, there are some things you don't want to do in a cover letter. I've seen every one of the following:
  • Summarize your story, talk about its themes or say what a great piece it is. The reader of the publication is only going to see the story itself--any comments or explanations in the cover letter are irrelevant. (Note: This doesn't apply to submitting novels or other book-length projects, where an outline and opening chapter(s) is normal.)
  • Attempt to elicit the editor's pity.
  • Imply that you're a dangerous type.
  • Act like you're one step away from losing it altogether. (Unless of course you are, and therefore can't help that that comes across.)
  • Tell the editor how to do his/her job.
  • Imply that the story's acceptance is a done deal.
  • Be rude.
  • Be overly familiar.
  • Have typos, misspellings and grammatical errors.
  • USE ALL CAPS.
  • alternatively, use all small letters. if you want to do the e.e. cummings thing, save it for your submission. In the cover letter use standard grammar, punctuation and spelling.
  • List more than 3 or 4 publication credits. I'm still not entirely sure how the psychology behind this reaction works, but when the list of publication credits grows beyond 3 or 4, it becomes a negative. Every editor I've discussed this point with, or heard talk about this point, says the same thing. At a panel at last year's Balticon a panel of 4 editors at publications ranging from large to small (I remember John Joseph Adams, from F&SF, was on the panel) all said the same thing--listing too many credits is a turnoff.
  • List irrelevant publication credits. Now, this can be finessed a bit (it might be worth sneaking in that you've published a number of non-fiction books on physics, even if this is your first sf short story), but be sensitive to what the editor will see as a plus, and what he/she won't. For instance, many editors at print publications look down on web publication. Many editors of literary journals look down on genre publications. No editor cares that a number of your stories have been posted on friends' blogs.
  • List pseudo-achievements. For instance, any author can nominate his/her own online story for the Million Writers Award. So don't list that you've been nominated for it (even if you didn't nominate yourself). Of course, if you won the Million Writers Award, made it to the top ten, or were selected as a Notable Story of the Year, that's a legitimate achievement to list.
One final word on listing publication credits. If one has relevant credits, it's probably worth listing three or four. However, don't worry about a lack of publication credits. Everyone starts somewhere, and unless just having your name on the cover will increase circulation, the quality of the first paragraph of your story is a lot more important than any publication credit you can list.

The overwhelming majority of cover letters I've received have been polite and professional. Don't stress about whether you might have done something wrong in a past cover letter. No one's keeping track. The above guidelines are meant to be helpful with your future submissions.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Louise said...

Just read your piece on cover letters and also wanted to pop over to this new blog, Jim. A great idea! :D

More on writer's submissions -- While I've never technically been in your editing shoes exactly, it never fails to amaze me the amount of small press mag editors I know that tell me of some submissions (not the majority of course, but rather the exception) where the writer has tried to play "cute" in the cover letter, or takes such a blatant disregard for guidelines. This is something I just don't get. *scratches head* From the moment you start learning as a writer, submission guidelines, proper formats and cover letter guidelines are drilled into your head by pros and what not. To me, it just seems second nature to follow them.

Great new blog, Jim, and always a pleasure reading your pieces -- non-fic or otherwise.

Louise ~

June 06, 2007 7:42 PM  
Blogger liz said...

You forgot two that I think I've heard you mention: no green ink and no crayon.

June 08, 2007 6:13 PM  

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