Writing the Cover Letter: Some Tips

By Nate Duke

Let's say you just found out your favorite journal is open for unsolicited submissions, and you finally wrote something you think might interest them. You enlist the nearest coffee shop dweller to do an impromptu proofread of your piece, then you check to make sure you have a title and page numbers. You read the journal’s submission requirements two more times, and re-save your .docx as a PDF. You upload the document to Submittable (or whatever server this journal uses) and you’re ready to hit submit, but you’re confronted with the small expanse of the “Cover Letter” box.

There are many examples available of how to fill this box, and if you’ve been submitting work for awhile then hopefully you’ve been tweaking and developing your cover letter as you mature in your career. I’ve been reading unsolicited submissions for different journals for over a year now, and this post contains some of my thoughts on the kind of cover letter that works.

The essential purpose of the cover letter (for the journals I’ve read for) is to give a little context about the submitter. At best, a cover letter will communicate to the reader/editor that you’re a polite person who is respectful of other’s time and will be easy to work with. A good cover letter will not make your submission, but a bad one could very well break it.

The following suggestions are drawn from reading hundreds of cover letters, and my own experience writing them. They are merely suggestions, and in no way indicate the submission protocols of any organization including CutBank.

  1. Address it “Dear Reader,” not “Dear fiction/poetry editor, managing editor, *name of editor*, etc." In general, your work isn’t getting a first pass from the editor, but from a volunteer that is part of a changing team of readers.
  2. Keep it short and to the point. The more you say about your writing in your cover letter, the more time is detracted from what the reader is going to spend on your actual piece.
  3. Do mention if you received positive feedback on a previous submission to this publication. Also, if it would be your first publication, let them know. A simple “if accepted, this would be my first publication” at the end works great.
  4. IF THEIR SUBMISSIONS PROTOCOL REQUESTS A BIO, keep it under four lines. Do mention past publications and where you’ve studied or are studying. Do not talk about your pets or how you’ve recently moved somewhere hotter/colder than where you used to live.
  5. Mention past publications. Recognizable names and university-affiliated journals are great to mention, but The Online Journal of Literature Started by my Freshman Roommate isn’t. Keep in mind readers' eyes tend to glaze over after 3 publications.

Sample:

Dear Reader,

Please consider the attached [poems/short stories]—[name(s) of work(s) separated with oxford commas if necessary] for possible inclusion in [name of publication in italics]. After reading several back issues of [publication], I think my work may be a fit.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.

Bio: [Your Name] is a [graduate, student] at [University], where s/he studies/d [English, Creative Writing, Journalism, whatever]. You can find his/her work in Journal One, Two, Three, and several other fine publications.

________________________________________________________________

 

About the Author:
Nate Duke is pursuing an MFA in poetry at the University of Montana where he is on the editorial staff for CutBank. He is an alumnus of the Oxford American's editorial internship. You can find his work in Red Cedar Review, Driftwood Press, and elsewhere.