A guest post by Yi Shun Lai
Since 2014 I have edited prose for the Tahoma Literary Review. This submission period we had a little over a thousand submissions; by the time I’m done, I will have read somewhere between 350 and 400 pieces of fiction and given feedback on a little over half of those. (We have awesome fiction readers at TLR to help with the remainder of the workload, and poetry makes up a massive chunk of those thousand submissions.)
Over the past few weeks, we’ve had some commentary and questions on what makes a good cover letter for a literary submission, so I thought I’d address that.
First, some notes:
My policy with cover letters is so: I try to only read them after I’ve done with the submission. There are a lot of reasons for this, unconscious bias being chief among them, but because our submission engine defaults to showing me the cover letter when I open the submission, I usually will get a glance at them despite my best intentions before I get to the short story or essay itself.
Literary magazine cover letters are different from the query letters you would write to a consumer magazine in that your piece for a literary magazine is already complete. But in some ways they are the same.
This advice is unique to this editor and to prose, but I’ll wager it covers a lot of things folks like to see in cover letters in general.
The no nos are easy: Don’t “Dear editor” me. Don’t say something like “most people think I’m drunk or on cocaine when they read my work.” And for God’s sake, do not say your writing is “picaresque,” or that it “redefines literature.” (I don’t know. This last one might be a personal thing. *twitches.*) These are all things that have appeared in this reading period, by the way.
With that said, here are the YES, DO THISes of cover letters:
Please customize your letter. The person reading your submission is a person. With a name.
Please give me something that tells me you have actually read my magazine and/or know something of what we like to publish.*
*This is a gimme. Our editors are all online, as are our readers, and the magazine’s digitalfootprint is considerable.
You don’t have to tell me about your story or essay, but in nonfiction it can be especially helpful. In fiction I find people have a terrible time summing up their own work.
Please tell me a little bit about yourself. This is not a bio in third person. This is one or two lines about your most recent publications, maybe.
With all of that said, here’s what my standard cover letter for a literary submission looks like:
Thank you for taking the time to read my submission. I admire X publication’s [insert unique feature here]
We met [XX HERE] and I was happy to hear that you [UNIQUE THING ABOUT THIS EDITOR YOU LIKE OR WHATEVER HERE.]
I’m a prose editor for the Tahoma Literary Review, and my fiction is most recently published [XXX here]. My nonfiction can be found [XX].
Thank you very much. I look forward to hearing back from you.
Yi Shun Lai
Generally, it follows very basic rules:
- Be concise.
- Be polite and human. Remember you’re writing to a person, not a ‘bot. I’m not a fan of the one-line “cover letters” for this reason: it looks like I’m screening for data points rather than reading for a good essay or story.
- Please don’t aggrandize your own work or style. That’s what I’m here for, should you publish with me, and your work should speak for itself, anyway.
- Remember that your job is to do honor* to the work you are presenting to me. So you shouldn’t, as a friend described it to me recently, feel icky or gross about it. Look at it as giving your work due credit. Start there and you won’t feel icky–doing honor to something is not the same as, um, pimping it.
Okay? In the end, I think it comes down to this: Where are you writing this letter from? Are you writing it from a position that says you want to put something new into this world of reading? Yes? Then put that foot forward.
Okay. Now. Go forth and write. TLR opens to submission again 1 January 2018. Until then, ask me any questions below.
*I stole this from Alex Maslansky, bookseller at Stories Books and Café in LA. I have used it a bajillion times and I’ll keep on using it. It makes sense.
Aerogramme Writers' Studio
To submit your latest short story, essay or poem, you’ll need a cover letter—which is much different from a query. Use these tips from inside a creative writing program to help your letter make the grade.
While working toward my Master of Fine Arts at The Ohio State University, I did what many writing students (and professors) do: I joined the staff of the university’s literary journal. Reading and evaluating fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction submitted by writers living across the country and beyond proved to be endlessly fascinating. And because I never let on that back in high school I had been voted “Most Disorganized,” I was eventually given an editorship. When I went on to earn my Ph.D. at the University of Missouri, I made sure to work on that university’s journal, as well.
In fact, a great many literary journals, including some of the nation’s oldest and most revered, are affiliated with university writing programs. Part of the mission of these journals is to give creative writing students a hands-on education in literary publishing. But you don’t need to be a student for your work to appear in one. You just need to make it through the submission process.
I’m happy to report that in my 10 years of working on a number of journals, first as a student and later as faculty, not once did anyone ever utter the word “blockbuster.” Nobody based an editorial decision on whether an essayist’s website was getting millions of hits. No one cared whether or not a short story fit neatly into some red-hot “urban paranormal leprechaun bullfighter” genre. All of which is to say that when it comes to submissions, editors of literary journals are concerned with exactly one thing: finding manuscripts that knock their socks off.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that editors are only human. And fairly or not, a poor cover letter on any submission casts a negative light on the writer before the editor even gets to the manuscript’s first page.
So what should a cover letter entail? From reading thousands of submissions over the past decade, I’ve noticed that certain mistakes repeatedly crop up—and that your letter can stand out simply by avoiding these common errors. Let’s take a look at an (entirely fictitious) example:
Cool Story Magazine
123 Main Street
Anytown, State, Zip
Did you know that it takes 28 folds to make the perfect swan?2 You will learn that and more after reading “The Secret of Paper Folding”.3 It is a fictionalized account of a boy named Sammy who meets a mysterious old woman who has never before shared her origami secret. It is a story about the importance of friendship, sad but ultimately redemptive, with a cast of unforgettable characters.4 “The Secret of Paper Folding” is based on the true story of a unique lady I met back when I was a young girl.5 I believe that your readers would appreciate the story’s universal themes as well as the lighthearted spirit in which it is told.6
I was born in Norway but raised in Missouri.7 I have worked as an emergency room technician, safari guide, Model T refurbisher, bounty hunter, hand model, ferry captain, lighthouse keeper, ninja and tympanist.8
I am an unpublished fiction writer9 but am hopeful that you’ll select this story for the Pirate’s Booty Review.10
Thank you for your consideration.
Let’s turn our attention to the points numbered throughout in red:
1. Is the editor’s name Fred or Sandra? The writer has probably sent this letter to several journals and hasn’t changed the name in all the necessary places. Also, the salutation should include the editor’s full name, or “Dear Professor Murphy” if the editor is a professor, or “Dear Dr. Murphy” if he is a Ph.D.
2. Unlike a query letter to a literary agent, your cover letter to a journal doesn’t need to (and shouldn’t) try to grab the editor’s attention. Save that for the work itself. Witty? Snappy? Leave it out.
3. I see this error all the time. I think it’s reasonable for an editor to be suspicious of a writer who doesn’t know the rules of punctuation. The period always goes inside the quotation marks. Be vigilant about your grammar, always.
4. This advice might surprise writers who’ve worked hard summarizing their novels in queries to agents and editors—but, again, a cover letter isn’t a query, and the convention with literary journals is not to summarize the work in the cover letter. Let your submission speak for itself.
5. If you’re submitting fiction or poetry, there’s no need to connect the work to your personal experience. For an essay or memoir piece, you can do it briefly if your experience is relevant, but you shouldn’t feel obligated.
6. Of course you believe readers will like it. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be submitting it. Leave this out.
7. Fun fact! But also totally irrelevant.
8. It’s fine to state, briefly, something about yourself—your career, your locale—so that you come across like a flesh-and-blood human being. But I see this jack-of-all-trades thing so frequently that I had to mention it. There’s no need to prove how worldly and interesting you are. Let the work itself reveal your intimate knowledge of the kudu’s mating habits.
9. Because this cover letter doesn’t mention previous publications, I might deduce that the author is unpublished. Still, there’s no reason to highlight this fact.
10. There’s nothing wrong with the sentiment, but what the heck is the Pirate’s Booty Review? (Remember, she’s supposedly submitting to Cool Story Magazine.) Another careless error.
Bearing all this in mind, here’s a revised version:
Cool Story Magazine
123 Main Street
Anytown, State, Zip
Dear Fred Murphy,
Please find enclosed my short story “The Secret of Paper Folding.”
I live in rural Missouri, where I work as an emergency room technician.
I enjoy reading Cool Story Magazine and am hopeful that you’ll find my story to be a good fit.
Thank you for your consideration.
Simple, polite, even a little boring? That’s perfect.
A few additional points:
If you’re simultaneously submitting the same work to a number of journals, it’s good form to include a statement to that effect.
Check the journal’s website to be sure you’re writing to the current editor. Many journals, especially those staffed with MFA students, change personnel frequently. When in doubt, “Dear Fiction Editor” beats using the wrong name.
If you’re submitting electronically (more and more publications are allowing this), all of these principles still hold. Keep your cover letter e-mail short, sweet and professional.
All that said, if you’ve been previously published, then go ahead and include where your work has appeared. If you’re in a creative writing program or have won any honors, awards or fellowships for your writing, you might briefly include that information. Will any of this give you a leg up? Not necessarily. It might buy you an extra minute or two of an editor’s hopeful attention—at first—but ultimately the work will stand or fall on its own merits. Which is exactly how it should be.
This article was written by Michael Kardos.
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