This could be the edge you?ve been looking for.
Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash
Note: This article was updated in July 2020.
Cover letters are a requirement for almost every lit mag submission process. In this article, we?ll go over everything you need to know about writing the best cover letter possible, and together, we?ll convince that Submittable page to go green!
What is a cover letter?
A cover letter is your official introduction to the readers and editors who will be reviewing your work and deciding whether or not to include you in their next issue, series, project, or anthology.
1. Read the instructions. Please.
The biggest possible mistake you could make at this important part of the publishing process is to not read the directions. Many publications will have the directions posted on their website?s primary submission page or on their Submittable page. Read it once (or twice) before you put in your information and upload your document, then read it again before you press send.
Here are some common things that you may be asked to include in your cover letter:
- Titles of your submission poems or prose piece
- Contact information
- Short bio
- Previous Publications
- Your best pop-culture meme (Seriously, someone actually asked me for one.)
Be sure to note what specific information they request and make sure you include ALL of it.
I won?t deny that I?ve neglected to double-check the instructions myself and been horrified to find that I missed an important part of the instructions, which may or may not have influenced my submission status. I?ll never know.
So let me save you the hassle of experiencing this detrimental dilemma: Read the instructions. And then read them again.
Tip 1: If you have questions about a submission process for a particular publication, check their Q & A section before emailing them. Publications WANT you to submit to them, and will do their best to answer as many of your questions as possible on their sites.
2. Address the Readers/Editors/Publication by name.
I?ve heard the horror stories. Experienced it only once myself as a reader with a university lit mag. Someone is busy submitting to a ton of publications in all-night coffee-infused burst and they submit their work to us? but forget to change their cover letter introduction.
As a reader, it feels almost like an insult. Of course, most readers and editors know that you may be submitting to many different publications at the same time, but it?s not professional to just copy and paste without so much as double-checking your work.
It gives me, the reader, a bad first impression and that can lead to a bad reception of the work itself.
Some readers may not even move past the cover letter addressed to the wrong publication. Do your due diligence and double-check that you are addressing the right readers/editors/publication.
Tip 2: Research the publications site in order to find out who the primary readers or editors are. This information can normally be found under the Masthead section.
3. Be brief. Be specific. Be memorable.
In general, you want your cover letter to get to the point as quickly as possible while leaving the best impression on the person glancing at it. That?s right. I said glancing at it. While writers like to imagine that every word is being meticulously mulled over, the truth is that your submission is probably one of the hundreds that they have to read over. That month.
So it?s important that you communicate to the reader that you are a professional and respect their time.
By briefly describing the poems/prose submitted, and specifically addressing why you think the work is a good fit for the publication, you will leave them with a sense of excitement about your submission.
As a reader, I made it a habit to read the submission first before reading the bio. I personally didn?t want to enter the work with any sort of expectations or convince myself that a submission was stronger than it really was just because the author had received some amazing fellowship or published in a top-lit mag.
Only if I was getting ready to accept a submission, or on the fence about the choices a writer had made in the work, did I then turn to the cover letter.
A clear and concise description of the piece in the cover letter could help me make my final decision about the work and whether or not it?s a fit for my publication.
Tip 3: If your submission includes less than three poems, write a short sentence for each individual piece. If your submission includes more than four or more poems, try to find the common themes that exist in the work submitted and write 2?3 short sentences. Keep it under 100 words.
4. Brag. But just a little.
You?ve read the instructions, addressed the right editors, briefly summarized your submission and now you need to add the bio. But they?ve asked you for a ?short bio? and you’re like:
?I?m amazing and I have all these publications that you just have to know about otherwise you won?t know how incredible I am.? Yeah?that?s not exactly how it works for the readers of your submission.
Listing too many additional honors, publications and other attributes could actually work against you and make you come off as disingenuous.
Here?s what I suggest you include, in this order:
- Your pronouns
- Your primary form of employment/career focus
- Your 4?5 most recent publications or 4?5 most important publications. (It is entirely up to you how you want to interpret ?important? publications.)
- Most prominent awards or important factoids
- Your city and state of residence or level of education
There are definitely variances to this bio format but for the sake of this article, I?m gonna suggest you stick with these basics in the beginning.
Tip 4: Your short bio should be between 50?100 words.
5. Tell them you love them.
Okay, maybe you won?t end your cover letter with a P.S. I love you thing but give them a reason to want to respond back to you! Tell them how excited you are about hearing back from them or tell them what you love most about the publication. Make it a short sentence that gets right to the point.
Doing this can make you stand out as someone who could potentially be great to work with, which is almost as important as the quality of writing itself.
I like to walk the fine line between familiarity and professionalism with a short note about why I like their publication, a simple sign off, and the full name that I want them to use for publication.
Remember, don?t ruin the great impression you?ve now given them by signing off with something overly formal or impersonal. Readers and Editors are people too.
Tip 5: Read some of your old submission responses from previous publications to get a sense of their communication style and tailor your sign off to match!
Here?s how I get down.
I?ve talked about it and now I?m gonna share it with you.
Below are four different cover letters I?ve submitted to literary publications, three of whom accepted my work and one that didn?t. I?ll let you guess which one is the oldest of these.
The first is an example of a cover letter for a packet of four poems or less, with clear instructions to not include a bio.
To the readers and editors of Poetry Magazine,
I submit to you four poems from my current manuscript in progress. In particular, the poem ?girl 1997.? comes from a series of poems about my mother and I, emphasizing our proclivity for finding danger in common spaces. ?Coded Binaries? was a poem written recently in conversation with my work regarding the otherness I often experience as a QPOC based in the heart of Texas. I hope you enjoy the work and thank you for considering my submission.
Peace Be, Faylita Hicks
The poem selected from this packet was not mentioned in the cover letter but you can read it here!
The second is an example of? well? just read it.
Faylita D. Hicks studied in Texas State University?s MFA Creative Writing Program. She has represented the city of Austin at several National Poetry Slam competitions and her was a presenter as a Regional Poet at AIPF. Her work has been featured in various local anthologies and she has presented at several national festivals and events.
No greeting. No sign off. Very muddled information. Grammar issues. Gah!
This third example includes a very, very short bio.
To the Editors of Kweli,
I thank you for taking the time to review my submission. I have submitted three poems from my manuscript that I hope you enjoy. These poems have also been simultaneously submitted to two other publications in different packets.
Faylita Hicks is a recent graduate of Sierra Nevada College?s MFA Creative Writing program. She was a 2016 finalist for Write Bloody?s Book Contest and is a full time writer and performance artist. She has published in Yes Poetry and has work forthcoming in Prairie Schooner. She is currently based in San Marcos, TX.
This is an example of a cover letter for someone who has little to no publications but still needs to write a bio. (Me about a year ago.)
This fourth example is a more recent example of my cover letter and a short bio.
To the editors and readers of the Common,
I have included five poems from my manuscript-in-progress, Arco. The poems follow current issues including conversations about mass incarceration and immigration. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them.
Bio: Faylita Hicks (she/her/they) is a poet, essayist, and interdisciplinary artist. The Editor-in-Chief of Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, they are the author of HoodWitch (Acre Books, 2019), a finalist for the 2020 Lambda Literary Award for Bisexual Poetry, the 2019 Balcones Poetry Prize, and shortlisted for the 2020 Julie Suk Award. They have been awarded fellowships and residencies from Tin House, Lambda Literary, Jack Jones Literary Arts, and the Right of Return USA, the first fellowship designed exclusively for previously incarcerated artists. Their work has been featured in American Poetry Review, the Cincinnati Review, Huffpost, Longreads, Poetry Magazine, Slate, Texas Observer, Texas Monthly, and others. Hicks received an MFA in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada University.
A cover letter can?t do all the work but?
A cover letter won?t get you published all by itself, but it could give you the edge you?ve been looking for in the publishing world.
I hope this article helped you figure out one piece of the puzzle and I wish you great success in 2020 and beyond!