01 October 2012

creative writing submissions 101: how to write a cover letter

Trying to get published is a lot like trying to get a job. While your resume (or submission) might be the most important writing an employer (or publisher) will look at, there’s no denying that the cover letter is like the prelude to the kiss. (I know, I know. The metaphors switched there … but it’s still true.) The cover letter is essentially you introducing yourself to your potential publisher. It’s the foot in the door. It’s the firm handshake before the interview.

There is, naturally, some anxiety that occurs at any stage of the submission process, no doubt about it. But the difference between the cover letter and the submission will, hopefully, alleviate some of that anxiety. While the submission needs to be creative … the cover letter can be pretty standard. And unlike a query letter, in which you must lure the publisher into interest in your submission, you write cover letters knowing that the publisher is already going to read the creative piece or pieces you’ve sent. In other words, you don’t have to worry about being creative. What you want to focus on is being professional, succinct, and tidy. Let’s look at each of those aims independently.

be professional

A cover letter can—and should—be written in a standard business letter format. Everything you need to say can be said in three short paragraphs. As this is a business letter, you’ll want to make sure everything is left-aligned (no tabbing). Make sure you include a standard header with your contact information, the date, and the name, title, and contact information of the publisher to whom you are submitting. Try to use a specific person’s name in your salutation, versus a “To Whom it May Concern” opener. Unless you’re sure of the person’s title (i.e., Ms., Mr., Mrs., Dr., etc.) it’s often better to just address the letter to the editor by his or her first and last name (i.e., “Dear John Smith,”).

be succinct

Your cover letter can—and, again, should—be written in at most three short paragraphs, as follows:

1. Introduction: Your first paragraph should inform the publisher what you are sending. This means the type of submission (fiction, poetry, nonfiction essay, etc.), the number of pieces (particularly for poets; or, word count for fiction writers), and sometimes the title(s). Some presses prefer that you include the titles of pieces, while others just want to know what kind of work you’re submitting. A lot of writers will tell you to indicate some specific reason you are submitting to a particular press (i.e., “I appreciate your journal’s mission of [blah-blah-blah] and think this piece fits that mission perfectly”) … As someone who has edited a literary journal I will tell you these lines often come across as somewhat insincere and brown-noser-ish. Unless you really have read the journal and loved something about it, skip the flattery.

2. Bio: This is often the hardest paragraph to write, and some writers will skip it altogether. Generally, this paragraph simply includes a sentence of personal information (i.e., who you are and/or what you do for a living outside of writing) and some (recent) previous publication credits. This isn’t the place to list your entire history of publication: just list a few, if you have them … and if you don’t, that’s okay, too!

3. Closing: The last thing your cover letter needs to do is thank the editor(s) for their time and consideration, and give any other important information. Almost any publisher that accepts simultaneous submissions wants to know if your submission is one of them; you should include that information in your closing as well. (Some writers will include this in their introduction; that’s really up to you as a writer.)

be tidy

As terrible as it might sound, some editors will judge you by the quality of your cover letter. By quality, I don’t mean whether or not it brings a smile to their faces … What we’re talking about here is spell-checking, punctuation, and grammar. Before printing or emailing off your cover letter, make sure you proof read for any errors. One of the big pitfalls for writers is having a standard cover letter they forget to update for a new publication. Nothing looks worse than a submission to XYZ Press that you inexplicably start referring to as ABC Journal.

Remember, the work you submit should stand on its own merit whether a cover letter is required or not. But also remember: A properly formatted cover letter will never hurt your chances!

To download a sample standard cover letter, click the image link below!

Cover Letter (Sample)

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5 comments:

  1. This is an excellent post, Khara. Valuable advice.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for the info and sample cover letter Khara!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Post the sample cover letter for the position of sales executive.
     Cover Letters 

    ReplyDelete
  4. My pleasure, Dana.

    Gene, thank you for your comment. Although this site focuses specifically on writing (poetry, fiction, etc.), the samples posted to the site you referenced are actually great examples of what any cover letter should do, and reflect how the Creative Writing Cover Letter fits into the "mode" of a business letter.

    ReplyDelete

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