Friday, September 19, 2014

From Me to You: Much Ado About Cover Letters

Welcome to the third installment of From Me to You. Thousands and thousands of words expended upon how to submit your work if you're a total n00b. We've gone through researching markets and minding your Ps and Qs when submitting. Today! Cover letters!

Margaret Atwood drew this. I'm sorry for her and me and everyone who feels this way, but

Please know, right away, that the philosophy on cover letters varies greatly. (And please keep that in mind as you read every single sentence that follows.) Please also know that I'm specifically talking about cover letters for literary magazine submissions in this post. Cover letters for book submissions and pitches for essays or features have different rules.

Some author advice websites and columns will tell you to write something in your cover letter that makes you stand out. Some will tell you to be completely neutral. Some experts will say that you should list every last credit you've ever had, while others will say that looks boastful and/or is boring. The advice is just all over the place, totally inconsistent.

What do you do when this happens? Because honestly, there's inconsistent advice out there for virtually everything having to do with writing, and it's hard, when you're first starting out, to sort through it all and do the right thing. I make no promises for you, but what I do about a problem like this is best exemplified by what I do with a cover letter: keep it brief, offer only the information they need, and be professional. And do your best, that's my overriding philosophy about everything. 

Stephen King's On Writing, with its many merits, fails completely at telling you how to do a cover letter. The sample he includes is to an agent, not a magazine, but even so - it's long and chatty and includes many extraneous details, and I'm pretty sure that Query Shark would chew through that thing and move on before she was halfway done. King's strategy might work out if you've been introduced to the editor through a friend, or if you have as good a publication record as his example writer, but for the most part, slush* readers review hundreds or thousands of submissions per month. They run through them as quickly as possible. A long or unique cover letter is more likely to annoy than it is to delight, especially if they've already seen a dozen unique cover letters that morning.

At this point, you don't matter to them. They want to know if they can use your story. 

With that in mind, here's the cover letter I send out nearly every time. This one specifically includes the story and market with which we've been running throughout these posts, but you get the picture, this is the frame I send out nearly every time. 

Dear [Name]:

Thank you for your consideration of "Carlotta Made Flesh" (approximately 7,000 words). I hope you find it appropriate for Western Humanities Review. My work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, JMWW, The Escapist, and elsewhere.

Thank you again for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

Katharine Coldiron 
I vary the listed publications depending on the market (and how long ago that publication occurred), but I usually start with Monkeybicycle for a fiction sub because it's the nicest market that's published me. If I'm going for a genre market, I start with Theaker's Quarterly Fiction, which is a sci-fi mag, and if it's a UK market, I include Route, which is a UK mag.

But that's it. That's the whole letter. As we discussed last time, you might have some information about the story that you need to explain, and for that you can add another short paragraph before the second "thank you". For example, the italics thing in the last post, or one time I noted in a cover letter that the website had contradictory information about the market's reading periods and it wasn't my intention to submit when they were closed. But never never never summarize or explain anything about the content of the story (as opposed to superficial aspects). It should all be on the page.

Sometimes they'll ask for a bio (I'll talk about bios in a separate post) included in the cover letter, so I do a paragraph break after "I hope you find it appropriate for [magazine]" and then say
Bio: Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Role/Reboot, JMWW, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at The Fictator ( 
Then the "thank you again" line, and that's it. This is a sample, my sample; make your own. (I'm not insisting that you do exactly what I do. I'm just throwing this stuff out there in case you have no clue where to start.) Resist the urge to pad your cover letter; omit needless words.

Never seen it (graphically) said better.

Dear [Name] is another key point. Before you submit, go to the market's masthead (n. the listing of the editorial staff of a publication) to find out who your editor is. If the market has a separate fiction editor, he's your man (or she's your woman). If not, just address it to the highest-up editor who is actively associated, i.e. the editor-in-chief (not the editor-at-large). If there are co-editors, "Dear Ms. Dee and Mr. Dum", either in the order they appear on the page or in alphabetical order. If you can't tell the gender of the editor from the first name, and a Google of the name doesn't turn up that information, "Dear Whole Name".

This is one of those details that shows you paid attention, that shows you really care about getting into this particular market and you're not just shotgunning all possible literary magazines with your story. It may finally be confusing or impossible to figure out to whom you should address the cover letter, but Google at least a little bit ("[market] masthead" can be fruitful) before you give up and write Dear Editors.

"But Kat," you say, "isn't my submission going to a poor overworked editorial assistant, not the editor whose name I'm looking up?" Yes. Probably. But do it anyway. Writing "Dear Slusher" is cute but not helpful. Writing "Dear Ms. Dee" means that if your submission ever does land on Ms. Dee's desk, she'll see that you gave a damn.

Some sources will tell you that the point of the cover letter is to demonstrate that you have some fragment of a cerebellum, so the editor knows right away if she's wasting her time. If the cover letter is rambling or weird or poorly spelled/grammared or addressed to the wrong person or something else obvious, then the submission can just get rejected, all done, on to the next. Other sources will say that the cover letter's got administrative uses rather than aesthetic ones - it includes a date, so the editor can track the submission, and sometimes your contact information, which is helpful in case of an anonymous manuscript. This is why I suggest keeping it simple. Different magazines use cover letters for different purposes, so make sure yours is useful, courteous, and professional, and I don't think you can go wrong.

Another common piece of advice about cover letters is to mention something specific about the magazine that shows you read it or liked it. I think this is great advice, as long as you keep it brief and neutral rather than gushing and brown-nosey, but it has rarely applied to me. I submitted to Hobart not long ago, and I mentioned in my cover letter that I liked their Hotel Culture issue. I'm worried it sounded a little anonymous, like I didn't really read the issue and just pretended I had to get in the editor's pocket, but I did read it and I did enjoy it and I didn't think it would hurt to say so. People always like hearing that their work was appreciated, be they editors or bricklayers.

Some editors have said in interviews that they don't even look at cover letters, or that they set them aside, read the story, and look at the letter afterward. Fine. If you put together a standard letter and habitually include it with your submissions for those who want it, it's no skin off anyone's nose if you do so for an editor who doesn't care whether you have one or not.

If the submission guidelines say not to do a cover letter, then...don't do one.

There isn't a lot of difference between the cover letter procedure in print and in e. Generally, electronic cover letters don't need to be dated, and paper cover letters do, and that's the only real difference I see. Submittable allows you to save a boilerplate cover letter, and that's great, but my suggestion is to put something obvious in the spots that need to be different every time. "I hope you find it appropriate for XXX" is more noticeable, which means you're less likely to miss changing it out to the correct information for each letter, which means you won't insult anybody by accidentally leaving in the name of the prior publication to which you submitted the cover letter. 

So, at long last, here you are, having read the submission guidelines to death, looked up the fiction editor's name, formatted your manuscript, written your cover letter, and followed the prompts to pay the $2 reading fee. YOU CLICK SUBMIT. You've submitted your story to Western Humanities Review.

But then what? 

*Slush is a loose noun for unsolicited manuscripts. "The slush pile" is both a literal pile - the backlog of manuscripts that writers have sent to be reviewed - and a metaphor for the berth of unpublished but hopeful writers who send their work to magazines and book publishers and agents every year. Slush readers are the people who sort through the pile to try and find good stuff. They are usually young and overworked and underpaid (if they get paid) and have seen it all. They make the first round of decisions, and then the wheat is passed up to the more experienced editors for further processing and the chaff is rejected.

Some magazines don't have slush readers - the real editors read everything - but, for example, litmags that are affiliated with universities often use creative writing students as slush readers. This may seem shitty, or at least lazy, but it's fantastic experience for the students. I ran an e-mag for a short time and learned a great deal from slush. 

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