How to Write a Cover Letter for a Literary Journal Submission
Why you shouldn’t try to “stand out” in your cover letter
As the publisher of Fiction Attic Press, which publishes flash fiction and essays by new and established writers, I receive a few dozen submissions each month, more if I put out a call for submissions. Over the years, I’ve read thousands of cover letters. Some are good, some are bad, many are forgettable.
It might surprise you to know that the most forgettable cover letters are often the best.
That’s because a cover letter is never a place to be cute — “I live with my seven gerbils and love Swedish Fish!” — and it’s especially not a place to sing your own praises — “This story is a riveting journey into the mind of a madman. It offers a unique perspective on mental illness and will be sure to wow your readers.”
Your cover letter shouldn’t try to explain your story, it shouldn’t be arrogant, and it shouldn’t quote Amazon reviews of self-published books or include phrases like, “Jane Writer‘s work deftly plumbs the intricacies of the human psyche.”
The best thing your cover letter can do is indicate your professionalism so the editor can get past the cover letter and on to the story.
Whether you have zero publications to your name or an impressive bibliography, if your cover letter is professional, most editors will eagerly set the letter aside and begin reading the story. If the letter is unprofessional, on the other hand, editors will approach the story warily, expecting it to be as poorly executed as the letter.
I wanted to share with you a cover letter in which the writer does almost everything right. This letter came in “over the transom” (publishing speak for unsolicited) through Fiction Attic’s Submittable page.
Dear Fiction Attic Press,
Thank you for considering my work. I am an emerging writer with only a small scattering of published pieces. I appreciate all the time and attention my work receives. I look forward to hearing from you.
This is a simultaneous submission. I will withdraw the piece immediately if it is accepted elsewhere.
I am a writer and graduate student in the MA English program at *** University. My work has been published in *** and ***, and is forthcoming in ***. I live in *** with my fiancée, Jane.
Why the letter works:
- The tone is genuine and not boastful.
- The writer expresses appreciation for the work that goes into reading submissions (not necessary at all, but it’s certainly a nice gesture).
- The writer uses a phrase that is a common courtesy of professional letters in any industry: I look forward to hearing from you.
- The writer acknowledges that it is a simultaneous submission. This is not only courteous; it also indicates that the writer has done his homework, understands the world of literary magazines, and knows that most stories are submitted to multiple publications before they are accepted.
- The bio is brief and lends credibility: He is working on an MA, which means he is a serious reader and writer. It’s certainly not necessary to have an advanced degree in English, but if you have one or are pursuing one, you should definitely include it in your letter.
- If you don’t have a creative writing background, no worries. Briefly state what you do. Writer Person is a truck driver living in Modesto. Your profession is probably part of your identity. I am always interested in what a submitter does for a living, and if the writer is a truck driver/park ranger/astrophysicist/hot dog stand owner (pretty much anything other than just a writer), I’m instantly intrigued.
- In the bio, the writer names three publications in which his work has appeared and is forthcoming. Three to four is the maximum number of publications you should name, unless every publication you name is very impressive (Glimmer Train, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, etc). I get a lot of letters in which writers name a dozen publications I’ve never heard of. It’s great if you’ve published in very small journals (after all, Fiction Attic is very small!), but you don’t need to name all of them. The proper way to list publications is this: My work has appeared in ***, ***, ***, and other magazines and anthologies. Or My work has appeared in or is forthcoming from ***, ***, and ***, among others.
- Three sentences is the perfect length for a bio. If you have won literary awards, you can add a sentence after the list of publications stating, My short story, ***, won the *** Emerging Writers Prize. However, resist the temptation to include a long list of third-runner up prizes. I repeat: resist.
- Although it’s certainly not necessary to name your fiancé, including a third sentence provides a nicely rounded biography. Saying where you live and is a perfect way to construct that third sentence. In this case, I found it sweet that he named his fiancé.
- The one thing Joe Writer might have done differently is address the letter to a person instead of to Fiction Attic Press. In the case of Fiction Attic, I am listed on the About page as the editor, and there is also a list of readers. If you have a contact with one of the readers, address the letter to that person. Otherwise, address your letter by name to the person who is listed as the Fiction Editor, Poetry Editor, or Nonfiction Editor.
So, there you have it: the perfect cover letter for a literary magazine submission.
One more tip: although you don’t want your letter to be overly familiar, if you share a genuine connection with the editor, it’s nice to mention it. For example: On a personal note, I noticed that you are an alumnus of The University of Alabama. I was a student there from 2002 to 2006. Roll Tide!
And just one more: Another thing you might mention in your letter is a recent story or two from the publication that you admired, to show that you’ve done your research and understand what kind of work the journal publishes.
Do you write flash fiction? Submit your flash fiction to Fiction Attic Press.
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We always get questions about cover letters and it’s only because of our work on both sides of the desk (poet and organizer) that we’ve began to understand this a little better. Yes, we work for The Watering Hole, but we have also worked for The South Carolina Review, Yemassee, among others. We’ve been through hundreds of cover letters. Hopefully, this will demystify them for you.
Cover letters change shape based on what you are applying for. Sometimes poetry submissions lay out exactly what they are looking for in a cover letter. Often they don’t. Always, check that organization’s guidelines.
In general for poetry retreats, residencies, and fellowships, the poetry is read first, then the editors make a shortlist of acceptances, after which the cover letters are read, and more cuts are made. However, for publication, the cover letters are only read a month after all acceptances have been made, when editorial assistants copy and paste bio information for the publication. Clearly, these need not be comprehensive. The poetry is most important. Check out these sample below. Note the “business letter” format, which we’ll discuss further at the end.
Cover letters can be anywhere from 30 words to 2.5 pages, depending on whether you are applying for publication (30 words to 1 page), retreat (up to 1 page), fellowship and residency (up to 2 pages), job (up to 2.5 pages), and so on.
Definites for Publication: You definitely need to end the cover letter with a list your submission poems’ titles. The cover letter’s primary function is to match the blind poems (which don’t name the author) with the author’s cover letter (which does name the author and all contact info). The editorial assistants separate these parts during reading and judging and need to be able to put them back together easily.
Optional for Publication: Optional elements to include for a publication cover letter would be a 30-75 word professional bio, and 3-5 places where you’ve been published. (Really? No more than 5? Yes. Really. Definitely. No flex zone.) If you haven’t been published yet, feel free to say that. Journals jump at the chance to “discover” a hot new poet.
Definites for Other Programs: On the other hand, for retreats, fellowships, and residencies the cover letter is very important. This is helps determine who makes the short-shortlist. In addition to the information above, these cover letters would add a brief aesthetics statement of who’s influenced your art and what you seek to accomplish within your poems (to contextualize the poems in your submission); what you do; where you work; and any work you do in the arts community. The acceptance committee is trying to find out what kind of person you are, whether you work well with other artists on a regular basis, how your personality and personal goals jive with the retreat’s spirit and objectives, how you can enhance and be enhanced by that community of artists, whether there might be any issues that could disrupt the feelings of community (i.e. ego, belligerence towards equals, etc.), whether you are the best fit for their program. You have to tailor the letter to their interests and goals. As we mentioned before, always check the organizations requirements.
Sidenote for Longer Cover Letters: After having read a ton of these, in longer cover letters, everyone says the same thing. “I’ve been writing since x grade/year. Since my teacher read x poem, it’s been my passion. love love blah blah blah. I write for love, expression, revolution. I couldn’t breathe. Writing is my air.” Everybody has this story. Cut it. Don’t tell your passion: give evidence of it. Think about what would be the best evidence in a court of law. Think FACTS=PASSION. Think FACTS=CHARM. “Since 2014, I have participated in a small livingroom reading group, which led to my interest in Afrofuturism. That has resulted in a publication in Pluck titled ‘Superwoman gives up tights.’” This method will help you say something that is unique to you and will therefore make you stand out.
Definites for Everyone: Finally, pay close attention to following the “business letter” format, even for e-mailed submissions—your name and address, e-mail, phone, their name and address, e-mail, phone, date, Dear Name of Actual Person In Charge, letter, Sincerely, your name and brief list of 1-3 resume affiliations/titles. A little bit of professionalism goes a long way.
If you are applying to our ANTHOLOGY SUBMISSIONS, the deadline is March 31, 2015. Since we are a budding grassroots organization, we don’t have a street address just yet, so don’t worry about that part of the cover letter you write for us.
Anyway, I hope this provides some clarity. I’ve included a sample below. Feel free to steal it. Good luck, poets! Hit us if you have any questions.
P.S. Don’t play with the font. Single-spaced, Times New Roman, 12 point is standard. The smallest you can go is 11.5. Any smaller than that and people over the age of 50 get angry. And never put poems in the body of an e-mail. Always attach them as a Word document, unless you are told specifically to do otherwise.
Sample Publication Cover Letter:
[Your Street Addy]
[Your Town, State, Zip]
[Your E-mail Addy]
[Your Phone Number]
[Your website if you have one]
[Name of Editor] <—-You want the editor or poetry editor
[Department if applicable]
[Their Street Addy]
[Their Town, State, Zip]
[Their Country if outside of the U.S.]
March 1, 2015 <—-This should be the date that you send the submission
Dear [Name of Editor]:
I’ve enclosed my [fiction/nonfiction/poetry] submission for publication in [Journal/Magazine Title]. Included are [Titles of Poems]. My work has appeared in [3-5 Titles of other publications] among others. [*If submitting via mail] I’ve included an SASE for [response only/the return of my manuscript].
Thank you for your time and consideration.
[Your Title if applicable]
[1-3 affiliated organizations or universities]
[Short Professional Bio written in the third person in case of publication] Ex. Jane Smith was born and raised in Camden, S.C. After graduating from Hilman College, she has studied poetry at VONA, Breadloaf, and The Watering Hole. Muffet currently works as an insurance agent and hosts open mic nights in Memphis, T.N.
^ ^ ^ If you choose to integrate this bio into the body of your letter (instead of the postscript), use the first person I.