by Emma LaSaine
So, you want to submit your manuscript to a publication, do you? Alright, but you’re going to need a cover letter, and because you’re a creative motherfucker it’s gotta be the best damn cover letter that editor will ever read, right? This thing has to have the power to level the Sears tower, the wit to knock your reader onto their ass like a twenty-foot wave crashing onto Lake Shore Drive, and the length of a wait for a Forest Park-bound Blue Line train on a Sunday morning during construction season.
Or does it?
Believe it or not, this article is already longer than your cover letter should be. Yes, you heard me—cultivate some brevity.
“Why not longer?” you ask. “Aren’t details important?”
It simply doesn’t need to be. You have a busy life. Your editor has a busier one. They don’t have time to read your in-depth analysis of American politics as it pertains to the five-page story you’re sending their way. A concise, cover letter won’t make or break you in their opinion, but it certainly won’t piss them off as much as a six-page treatise on why they should publish your two-page poem. Sometimes, that makes all the difference.
You worked on this manuscript a long damn time, am I right? You labored through draft after draft. Now, you’re finally sending it out into the world. You aren’t submitting this cover letter for publication, you’re just writing it because whatever publication you’re submitting to requires one, so let your manuscript speak for itself. If it’s good, it’s good.
“Well,” you demand, perhaps with arms akimbo, “how should my cover letter look?”
Good question. Your cover letter needs to accomplish four basic goals:
- Address the editor politely.
- Give the form and title of the piece you’re submitting.
- Share your bio.
- Thank the editor for their consideration, then duck out before the party gets too rowdy.
Boom. Concise gold. Now let’s put it all together:
231 N. Imaginary Street, Chicago, IL
Dear Example McEditor,
Thank you for reading my short story entitled “Name of Your Manuscript.”
Jane Sample is an award-winning writer and photographer from Cleveland, Ohio. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in Fake Journal and Not a Thing Magazine. Her forthcoming debut novel, The Next Great American Novel, is to be published by Publishing House Name.
Thank you for your consideration.
“But what about flattery?” You cross your arms and raise a skeptical eyebrow at the above cover letter. “That looks like it could be for any magazine. Don’t they want to know that you read their publication?”
Well, yes. But do you? Editors love to hear how great their place of employment is, but that doesn’t mean you can genuinely claim you’ve been a lifelong fan of whatever magazine or journal you’re submitting to. Editors know when you’re lying—and will be especially annoyed if you waste their time lying in-length—so unless you actually have thoughts and feelings about that experimental prose piece they published in Issue Twelve last September, don’t waste their time with unnecessary faux flattery.
Now, maybe you do have those thoughts and feelings you want to share. Great! If they’re genuine they’ll most likely be welcome. In that case you can simply insert another short paragraph before your bio displaying your familiarity with the publication. You can also note in the first paragraph if you’re sending this manuscript in response to a specific call for submissions or to be considered for a particular issue.
A few other things to note:
-Just as Jane Sample did, make sure to include your contact information.
-You can also put a professional header with the editor’s name, the name of the publication, and the publication’s address at the top of your cover letter. This is customary, but not always required, especially for electronic or email submissions.
-Make sure you check the publication’s submission guidelines. In fact, those fuckers should be stapled to your hand while you write your cover letter and proof your manuscript.
-Follow the rules, format your shit correctly, and make sure you triple-check for errors before clicking “Submit.”
“Fine,” you roll your eyes, “I guess you know a bit about cover letters. But how the hell do you know who’s gonna read my manuscript?”
Well, let’s put aside your troubles with authority for a moment, shall we, and talk about editors. Most publications will list their mastheads on their websites. Give ‘em a read. If the masthead lists Bob Story as Fiction Editor and you’re submitting flash fiction, Bob’s likely your guy. For Creative Nonfiction, you’ll want to look for Nonfiction Editor Jolene Essayist. You get the idea. If you absolutely cannot discern to whom you should address your cover letter, or if there’s a whole team reading submitted work, something like, “Dear Poetry Editor,” or “Dear Acquisitions Editor(s)” will suffice.
Do not, under any circumstance, use that pitfall of formality “To Whom it May Concern:” because it sounds like you couldn’t be concerned with figuring out who will read this cover letter. Don’t be a diva and don’t anger the editor. They are considering you and your work, not the other way around.
Well, there you are. Now you’re armed with the knowledge to fire off a cover letter of your own and submit your writing every-which-place. In fact, you can even keep a template cover letter to tweak for each new submission so you don’t have to write one from scratch every time. But if you do, just be sure to quadruple-freakin’-check that you didn’t accidentally leave the wrong manuscript title, publication name/address, or editor’s name on your cover letter. Believe me, I’ve seen it, even from excellent writers, and it doesn’t make you look too competent.
Oh, and one last thing to remember: cover letters accompanying manuscripts to publications and cover letters for applying to jobs are different animals. Don’t conflate the two. How do they differ? Well, the intents and the subjects are different, if that gives you any clue. If it doesn’t, you have the Internet. Go Google it like you do with all of your trivia questions or spelling discrepancies.
Emma LaSaine is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago, with a BA in Creative Writing. She is an award-winning nonfiction writer, Managing Editor of Habitat Magazine, and Production Editor of Hair Trigger 38. Emma is also the 2013-2014 Honors Research Award recipient. Her writing appears in BORGEN Magazine, Slacktivist, The Lab Review, and on her website, emmalasaine.com.