Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The cover letter -- a sample and some personal preferences

When you snail mail a submission to a journal, it's standard practice to include a brief cover letter. Some journals claim they don't want one at all; others make it optional; but most at least expect it, or even encourage it. Even if you're submitting electronically -- via email or a site's submission portal -- you'll probably supply cover-letter-esque information, commonly in the body of the email, or in the comments window of the submission portal form. There's no definite right and wrong when it comes to what to include in these accompanying bits of information, but here are some suggestions, including my personal preferences.

First, though, I'm discovering that young folks are losing the hang of letter writing. They text and email and increasingly when they apply to a school or for a job or scholarship, there's an online form into which they simply input the requested information. In short, they aren't required to write letters on a regular basis. I recently invited my 18-year-old students to submit a letter expressing interest in a scholarship opportunity in order to be considered a candidate, and not one of the seven respondents actually wrote a letter; in fact, they seemed rather nonplussed as to what a letter should even look like. Therefore, briefly, here's a typical format for a business-style letter:

Ted Morrissey
1111 My Street
My City, IL 65555

11 January 2011

Samantha Jones, editor
Great Lit Journal
Great University
Great University Town, NY 11111

Dear Dr. Jones [I usually research the editor online to see if he/she holds a doctorate or not so that I can address the editor appropriately; if the information is unavailable, perhaps simply Editor Jones.]

Enclosed for your consideration is my short story "A Great Read" (2,000 words).

My fiction has appeared in a few journals, including The Cat Review, The Dog Review, and The Goldfish Review. I hold an MFA in fiction writing from East Coast University, and I teach English at Terrific Liberal Arts College.

Thank you for considering my story. This is a simultaneous submission.


Ted Morrissey [leaving space above the name for my signature]

If you're including information in an email or in the comments window of an online submission portal, you may not follow the formal style of the cover letter, but the basic information will be the same. Here are some points to consider:

Writers tend to believe their work will be more attractive to an editor if they can supply some sort of credentials. These credentials usually come in the form of previous publications, but alas you may not have any meaningful publications. In lieu of meaningful publication credits (I acknowledge that "meaningful" is a nebulous term), writers may be tempted to fill in that space with, what I consider, dubious information. For example, they may mention publication credits that are, well, less than impressive (like very small circulation newsletters, or good showings in contests that only attract a few participants). I would say, though, if all you can offer is a less-than-impressive credit, don't mention it at all.

Another thing I often see from writers who are still looking for their first legitimate credit is to mention fairly well known teachers or mentors who like their work. My sense, however, is that namedropping doesn't work very well. It tends to cast you in a secondary role, as student or groupie, and therefore doesn't carry much clout with an editor.

Instead, just be honest and make it clear that you haven't been published yet. Editors love to publish somebody for the first time -- it's like discovering the next supermodel carhopping at the local Sonic. So you're more attractive as a "virgin" writer or poet who can be discovered by an insightful editor, than you are as someone who's so desperate to appear worthy that you include unimpressive credentials with your submission.

Check the writers' guidelines to see if the editors have said anything about what they want in the cover letter or accompanying information. Some want only the basics. Others want you to provide a third-person biographical statement that they can use in their contributors' notes if your piece is published. Some encourage a sort of chatty letter in which you talk about your interests beyond writing.

As an editor receiving submissions, I always preferred a cover letter that was professionally presented but also casual in tone -- from someone who takes his or her work seriously, but not him- or herself; that is, someone who sounds like it'd be fun to talk to over a cup of coffee, about books or writing or fly-fishing.

Whatever you decide to include in your cover letter (or cover-letter-like material), be sure to proofread it carefully. Many editors purposely read the accompanying material after they read the story, essay, or poem itself, as they don't want their reaction to the submission to be colored, positively or negatively, by the cover letter. But others do read the cover letter first, and therefore are influenced by it -- so a poorly written cover letter, with typos or incorrect information, could put your story or poem in a bit of a hole before the editor ever starts reading it.

Be professional; be respectful; be appreciative.

Men of Winter

No comments:

Post a Comment