What Published Authors Never Tell You About Writing A Cover Letter by Catherine Foster

As a short story author, I am proud to tell people that I have over seventy published titles to my credit. This is one of the first things that I list about myself when I am crafting a blurb about my accomplishments or when I need to write up a paragraph detailing my successes. As authors, we can craft what truth to write on the page to suit our needs. For instance, it is an equal truth but far less flattering to mention that for every story on the list that met with an approval letter, I first met with at least four rejections. Sometimes I had ten or fifteen dismissals before I saw that coveted acceptance finally come my way. In fact, it might be fairer to write next to my name: suffered 703 kicks in the teeth, but who wants to trumpet their failures? It’s far better to tell about the ones that people liked than the ones they didn’t, wouldn’t you agree?

Let’s be honest: you’re going to get some rejections along the way. It’s to be expected, but you’re strong and you can handle it. You can mitigate your risk of receiving that dreaded rejection letter by following a few simple rules:

–When you are ready, having your piece thoroughly edited and proofread.

No submissions editor wants to read a story by an author that couldn’t be bothered to properly punctuate or spell correctly. If you don’t care, why should they?

–Reading and respecting ALL submission guidelines.

This can be difficult, since each place has varying, possibly circuitous, rules that sometimes seemed designed to test your patience and understanding of your computer’s advanced formatting tools. But a word to the wary: many places will not even read your submission if you don’t follow their rules very closely. It is wise to spend time reading the fine print, and I especially recommend becoming familiar with William Shunn’s excellent guide to formatting, which is considered by most to be the gold standard when there is any doubt about the rules.

Choosing wisely about where to submit.

You may not have time to read the back issues of every literary magazine between The Albuquerque Revue and Zephyrhills Weekly, but it is your responsibility to be at least a little familiar with where you are submitting. It doesn’t make sense to submit a horror story to a romance-based magazine or a conservative political editorial to a nonbinary review. These types of mistakes are sure to get you a rejection, and not a nice one. A little bit of research beforehand can save you a lot of headache in the long run. Or it can make your day!

–Having a great submission letter.

This is your introduction and your chance to stand out from the pack.

We’re going to focus on the last item. The key to having your first story accepted instead of brushed off can be as simple as your submission letter. If I had known that when I was beginning my career, I may be more able to write now suffered only 201 kicks in the teeth and saved myself a few heartaches, but perhaps you can learn easier than I did. A well-written submission letter is important because it gives a lot of information about you in an organized manner. Many contributors skip this step, especially if they are submitting through an online management software system such as Submittable that has its own place for the questions that would normally be included in a cover letter. This is a mistake for several reasons, this first and most important is that your information will be stored with that system, but you want to be known as professional. Your submission and that spot in the magazine or with the publishing house is similar to a job to which you are applying. If you take yourself seriously and with respect, the editors will see that and take notice. Filling out an online form is the minimum effort required, and it shows. Having a well-crafted submission letter speaks volumes about you, and you want to leave people with the best impression of yourself and your work that you possibly can.

It is all right to create your letter beforehand and tweak it to fit the different places you are submitting to. This is known as a form letter. The danger in this is that you must be very careful to look over your letter before you send it out. You don’t want any embarrassing mistakes because you sent the wrong date or the wrong salutation at the top. So be aware of the pitfalls of the form letter.

The submission letter should start with your name, address, telephone number and e-mail address at the top left corner, left-justified. Must you give this information? Sometimes not, but it is easier to remove it in subsequent drafts than to keep adding it every time you want to send the letter. Traditional cover letters usually include that information, and any reputable establishment will not sell or use personal information from submissions. If you choose not to include this information, you can always delete it later.

The next step is to choose a greeting. Because it is a form letter, it is advisable to choose something that does not specify gender or is inclusive to both. “To Whom It May Concern,” “Dear Sir or Madam,” etc.

The opening paragraph is where you introduce yourself. Say hello and state the the name of your story. This is where you need to establish a connection, no matter how tenuous: “I found your listing for calls in New Pages.” “I read Glimmer Train.” “I read a story by your editor.” Here is where you mention how know about them or how you heard about their company and why you think your story is a good fit. This paragraph should not be more than three or four sentences. This is not the time to discuss plot details or to explain anything. This is a quick, easy, paragraph establishing introductions and connections and should not be overly dense.

The next paragraph is your biography. It should be about seventy-five to a hundred words, or no more than four sentences. This is where you state some accomplishments germane to the industry. You may list a single website and no more than three published titles. If you list everything you have ever written, you risk boring the editor and they will skip over your whole letter. If you are new and just getting started, don’t fret. You can use general terms when talking about your accomplishments: “I’ve been writing for 5 years.” “I have always loved reading and have decided to pursue writing as my dream.” Many, many publishers passionately support new and emerging writers, so don’t be intimidated  when you’re just starting out!

The last section is where you close it out and tie everything together. Thank the editors for taking the time to read your work. Say something gracious about the process or something personal but genuine. If nothing seems to fit, that’s okay. This section should be short, but not more than three sentences at most.

For your closing, pick something that suits you but is not too trendy. “Sincerely,” “Respectfully,” “Best wishes,” are all good choices and something in that vein would serve you well. You want to write your name, and underneath that you may also put your pen name in parentheses, if you are using one.

This will be a good, solid submissions letter that will serve you all the years that you will be working with the publishing industry. It can be modified easily: you can add to your growing list of accomplishments in your biographical section, add in word count if the site specifies it, give a little blurb about the plot if they require it, and so on and so forth. The most important thing is that you remember to read all of the requirements for each site so that you can make the changes to your letter that you need to.

Rejection doesn’t come easy to anyone, but being prepared will help you avoid a majority of those nasty stings. This guide to submissions letters is your first step in great preparation. Good luck out there, and happy submitting!





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