What to include? How to write it? One year's publishing credits or more than one year's or no credits at all? Biographical information?
It's a bit of a minefield, and as we tread carefully with each submission, reading the guidelines, buying the back issues, sending within the open to submissions periods, the cover letter can seem like the last stretch of innocent-looking sand, surely we can sprint this last bit and get home?
Beware; dangers lurk ... while I've never rejected a story on the basis of the cover letter alone (although I know an editor who claims he does this constantly), there are many ways that a cover letter can influence the editor, intern or slushpile reader who receives your manuscript.
1 - First and foremost, it can influence by its absence. Some places read blind. If you're submitting to one of those, it doesn't mean don't bother with a cover, it means assume your cover is filed until a decision is made about your story. So make sure you include the SALIENT information on a separate sheet, or in the body of the email if you're sending a story attachment. SALIENT means: your name, your address, your telephone number and email address, whether the story has been published before, and whether you have been published at this venue before.
OPTIONAL (check the guidelines) information: biographical information, publication credits, word count.
2 -Where a place doesn't say it reads blind, you still can't assume your cover will accompany your story. This means you need to check the submission format to ensure you have included your name in the story header or footer if requested, and so on. Most places read cover then story, whether its a print or online submission. Again, make sure you include the SALIENT information and then check their guidelines on the OPTIONAL information.
Simple, isn't it? So why do we fret so much about it.
Okay, so here's some things they don't tell you, but that help move you towards publication, in my experience.
If you're sending an email cover, send it to yourself first. It's amazing how badly formatted some email submissions are, they look nothing like a letter, and I can only assume people didn't take this basic step before sending their story to an editor. If it doesn't look businesslike when you open it, it certainly won't look businesslike to me.
Stick to three paragraphs wherever possible:
1- here is my story, title X, previously published/unpublished - this is where you put the other stuff the journal wants to hear about: word count; which theme issue you are submitting for, and so on. If an editor encouraged you to submit again, or said something nice about your last submission, mention that here. If you've been published there before, please mention it at this point as some journals don't republish a writer for a year or two, others like to republish, but none like to get a nasty surprise when they've made a decision on a story.
2 - here is my biographical information, essential this means any writing qualifications you have, and story credits that are less then two years old and in print publications only. If you don't have print, include online credits; I certainly take notice when writers mention zines that I respect and read and any RECENT credits are better than no credits. But if there's a two year gap when you haven't had a credit, better not to include dates, or not to mention credits at all. It just feels a bit weird to the reader, and even weirder if you go on to explain why ... we really don't care if you were breastfeeding or in Patagonia, it's squicky to be given too much detail about a stranger.
3 - here is anything else I need to tell you: you once dated their poetry editor; you were a finalist in one of their contests; you went to their latest reading - if it makes a bond and it's relevant, say it here. Don't just say nice things about their journal though, it's (a) taken for granted that you like it or you wouldn't be submitting and (b) a waste of the reader's time, especially if you only say 'I really love your magazine'.
Thank them for their time, and get out of their hair.
Exceptions to the rules above:
- If you have a really profound reason for submitting (hey, I just spent two years writing poetry while photographing marsh lizards in Patagonia and you have a call for submissions on Patagonian wetland poetry, how cool is that?) then mention it.
- If you have been asked to send in a story by a named member of their staff, mention that too.
- If you are going to Patagonia for two years, and will only be contactable by phone on Tuesday mornings, please say so.
- If a writer who has been published there recently has suggested you send this story, it's worth mentioning that too.
Things you should never mention:
- How many times this story has been rejected elsewhere
- That it took you twenty minutes (or seven months) to write this piece
- What inspired you to write the story and what it's about
- That this is the first thing you've written
- You think it would make a great film ...
- That your mum or partner loved it
So I hope that helps - ask any questions that occur to you and let's unpick the cover letter puzzle together.
Oh yes - one more thing. What, you are probably asking (if not, you should be) qualifies me to talk about cover letters? Eighty-three published short stories, excluding erotica and science fiction, that's what.
It's quite amazing how many people can tell you how to write a cover letter, or a story, but if you google them, you may find they have little or no success to point to - writers are always keen to get good advice, but don't always check the source of that advice to see how well the adviser has succeeded. Don't be naive, always judge for yourself if the person you're seeking help from is the kind of person whose help is worth having!