The first thing I’ll tell you is relax. Cover letters shouldn’t stress you out, because they’re relatively simple to write. An effective cover letter is mostly professional, a little personal, and concise.
It’s important to note that I’m writing this solely from my perspective as an editor of a short fiction literary magazine. Different editors and types of organizations (agencies, for example) may have different requirements or expectations. So here’s my advice that you can take or leave on cover letters:
Do your research.
Make sure you’re following their guidelines. Maybe they include specific cover letter guidelines—agencies especially tend to have very specific guidelines.
You should also know what kind of fiction/poetry/essays the publication produces. This means you’ve actually read the stories or poems to see if it’s a match for the kind of style and content you have. Not researching or reading their magazine isn’t just a waste of the editor’s time; it’s a waste of your time. If you’re blindly sending out submissions to magazines, the chances of getting published will be far slimmer.
Lastly, you should address the correct editor by name. It’s okay to use “Dear Fiction Editor” if you can’t find the staff listing, but most sites/magazines do have this. Whether you address by name is not make-or-break, it is the story that matters, but it does show that you’re a writer who cares and did your research.
Be concise and professional.
I once received a cover letter that was two pages, front and back. Most of it was a listing of every single publication, award, recognition, and praise they’d ever received. I couldn’t help but wonder, if s/he was so prolific, why were they submitting to a small press magazine?
Your cover letter should be simple and to the point. Refrain from excessive listing of credentials and publications, but you should list those that are significant and well-known. Don’t delve into your life story or why you decided to become a writer. We’re all very happy for you, but it’s the fictional story we want to read more.
Being professional means you recognize the amount of work that goes into the publication you’re submitting to and that their time is valuable. Thank them for accepting unsolicited manuscripts or reading your story. Let them know a SASE is included and the best way to reach you should they want to contact you.
Add a personal touch.
I know, I said don’t tell your life story. But there’s nothing wrong with a personal touch that’ll make you stand out. Obsessed with UFOs or breakdancing? All right, cool, let us know in a brief line.
Another way to add a great personal touch is to talk about why you admire the publication, and be specific. I often get letters that say “I love the fiction you publish.” Well that’s great, but why? You could be copying and pasting that on a number of cover letters. Make it unique and honest.
Don’t give a story synopsis.
This is where the difference between agencies and publications becomes clear. Agencies are looking for a synopsis. Most literary publication editors are not. I don’t want a “preview” or “teaser” or anything else. I just want the story. Story synopses can create an impression or expectation of the story before we’ve even read the first word. Good short stories are truly difficult to describe in a single sentence, because they should be about so much that you can’t contain it in a single sentence—that’s why you wrote the whole story, right?
Remember rules have exceptions.
There’s always exceptions to the rules, including these. I recently received a cover “letter” that was actually a hand-drawn and illustrated greeting card. Inside the author had a handwritten note about how much he liked the stories in Carve and that it had inspired him to write. He felt it was very important that he send his work to us to give him some kind of validation.
We didn’t accept the story, but I was very moved by his honesty and the time that he must’ve spent illustrating the card. I sent him a hand-written note back, thanking him and encouraging him to continue writing. I also included some comments on what did and didn’t work in the story.
I realize not every organization or publication may take the time to respond as such. But that’s a risk you take when you send off your submission to the publications you wish to see your work in.
Are cover letters even read?
I don’t know the answer for every publication, but for us, yes. I usually read them first, while Kristin will slip it behind the story and just dive right in. Maybe some readers at other magazines just scan for recognizable names or publications—we just don’t know how it works everywhere.
But what I do know is that when you keep your cover letter brief and to the point, it conveys a sense of professionalism the readers and editors will likely admire. And that can only mean good things. Maybe you’ll get just another form rejection letter back, or maybe not. Ultimately, it can’t hurt to take the time to do a proper and professional cover letter. The most it’ll cost you is a little time, and the return on that investment may end up being great.
Give us an example!
Here’s a great example from someone we just published in our summer 2012 issue: Adrienne Celt. (Read “The Eternal Youth of Everyone Else.”)
To the fiction readers of Carve Magazine,
I really admire Carve for not only choosing gorgeous fiction, but also presenting it so gorgeously. I’m not sure what the future holds for literary journals - online? e-readers? boutique print? - but you guys are doing great work on all fronts. I hope you enjoy the attached story - “The Eternal Youth of Everyone Else.”
Currently, I’m an MFA candidate at Arizona State University, where I’m also the Editor of International Prose for Hayden’s Ferry Review. I was recently a finalist in the Esquire/Aspen Writers’ Foundation Short Short Fiction contest, and my novel-in-progress was shortlisted in the 2011 William Wisdom Competition.
Thanks very much for your time and consideration!
Note that instead of addressing the editor, she recognized we have a large staff of readers and addressed them all. Nice move. The rest is concise, professional, and with a personal touch that gave us an ego boost. That’s how you write a cover letter!