Cover Letters: When, Why, and How to Use Them
by Moira Allen
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When you submit a manuscript to an editor, should you include a cover letter? The answer isn't always obvious. On the one hand, a manuscript stuffed into an envelope all by itself seems so -- well, naked! On the other hand, stating the obvious (e.g., "enclosed is a manuscript..." or "I hope you find this of interest") almost seems an insult to an editor's intelligence.
Cover letters can serve a purpose, however -- and sometimes several purposes. Here are some tips on when to use them, what to include, and what to leave out.
When to Use a Cover Letter
Under certain circumstances, a cover letter can be an important addition to your manuscript. Those circumstances will also dictate the content of that letter. Such circumstances include:
- When the material has been requested. While most editors remember assignments they have made, it doesn't hurt (especially if you're a new writer for the publication) to remind the editor that this is requested rather than unsolicited material. Simply state something along the lines of "Enclosed is the manuscript you requested in your letter of (date) [or "that we discussed in our conversation/e-mail/whatever of (date)], titled (title)."
- When you need to provide supplementary information. You may wish to note in your cover letter that you can provide photos, illustrations, or contacts or sources of additional information. If a publication wishes to "fact-check" your article, a cover letter is a good place to list your sources (including individual contacts, references, online resources, etc.).
- When you need to provide information about yourself. If the article is unsolicited, you may wish to use your cover letter to explain your credentials, expertise, or other qualifications for authoring the piece. Or, you may wish to list the credentials of the experts you've interviewed for the article.
- When you write under a pseudonym. A cover letter is the place to provide your real name and address, along with the pseudonym you wish to use as your byline.
- When the publication requests a biographical sketch. Usually, your bio sketch should be no more than 300 words (and more likely around 100 words), and relate to the content of the article if possible.
- To provide a separate record of your name, address, and article information. In many cases, your manuscript may be passed from one editor to another, or to different departments. A cover letter gives an editor an easy way to file (and look up) your name and address even when the manuscript isn't on his/her desk.
- To indicate whether the manuscript should be returned. While the size of your SASE should be an indication of your intentions (a large SASE indicates that you want the manuscript returned, while a #10 envelope indicates that it can be discarded), some editors prefer an explicit statement of your preferences. (This is because many editors have received angry notes from authors who wonder why their 20-page manuscript wasn't returned in their #10, single-stamped envelope.)
- To provide information that is not obvious from the first page of the manuscript. If you've managed to interview a top expert on your topic, or your article discusses information of particular timeliness or significance to your intended market's readership, you may wish to mention this in your cover letter -- especially if that information doesn't appear immediately in the article. (Keep in mind that "timely" has a different meaning in the magazine world, however, when an article may not be published for six to eight months after acceptance.)
- When you have been referred to the editor. If you have been referred to a particular editor by someone that editor knows and respects (such as a regular contributor to the publication, another editor, or an agent), mention this in your cover letter. For example, you might say, "Sue Jones, your nutrition columnist, suggested that I send this piece to you." Be sure, however, that your "referral" is from someone whose opinion the editor respects!
- When you are offering supporting material that isn't included in the package. For example, I recently submitted an article to a UK market, and promised to provide a sidebar listing various resources mentioned in the article -- if the article was accepted. Since that task would require considerable extra time and research, and since the sidebar was not necessary to the content of the article itself, such a "promise" was appropriate. Note that this only applies to "nonessential" supporting materials, such as lists of contacts, references, supply sources, artwork, etc.
If none of these circumstances apply to you, but you still prefer to include a cover letter, just keep it simple and professional and don't worry about redundancy. Your cover letter should be prepared in a standard business format (block or modified block). Following is an example of how such a letter might appear:
Janna Q. Writer|
123 Wordsmith Lane
Conundrum, WA 98765
(XXX) XXX-XXXX/fax (XXX) XXX-XXXX
March 15, 1999
Dear Mr./Ms./Editor Jones:
Enclosed is a manuscript of XXXX words, titled (whatever) for your consideration. A SASE is enclosed for your response; the manuscript itself need not be returned. Thank you for your time and consideration; I look forward to hearing from you.
Janna Q. Writer
Ten Things You Should Never Mention in a Cover Letter
While a professional cover letter usually can't hurt you, an unprofessional letter most certainly can. Avoid, at all costs, a letter that might prejudice an editor against you in advance, or convey the impression that you are anything less than a professional writer. That means avoiding any mention of the following topics:
- Irrelevant personal information. One of the cover letters that has stuck in my memory from editing days is the one that began, "Dear Editor, I am an unpublished mother of three..." There is no reason to provide details about your age, gender, family status, or anything else that does not specifically relate to the content of the article. (If your personal information relates to the article -- e.g., you are writing an article about divorce and you are yourself divorced -- this comes under the category of "credentials," above.) Personal information is of no interest to an editor, and immediately raises the flag of "amateur author."
- Announcements of your unprofessional or unpublished status. If you have never been published before, that's fine -- but the editor doesn't need to know this. (If it isn't obvious from the quality of your work, there's no need to make it obvious.) Don't attempt to play on an editor's sympathies by declaring that this is the first article you've ever written; this will only cause an editor to assume that you aren't experienced at your craft.
- "Hype. Don't tell the editor that your article is brilliant, thoughtful, exciting, inspiring, or "sure to please." Editors don't want to know what you think of your work; they intend to make those decisions for themselves. Hype simply sounds like desperation.
- Apologies about your article (or yourself). Some writers (presumably challenged in the self-esteem department) actually "apologize" for flaws they perceive in their articles or in themselves. "I realize I'm not a professional wordsmith, but I hope you will like this piece," one might say. Or, "I'm sorry if my style doesn't exactly match your publication, but I hope you'll take the time to read this." If your article is genuinely flawed, don't send it -- fix it! If your article is fine, but you have doubts about your abilities anyway, keep them to yourself. (If you continue to have such doubts even after selling a number of articles and getting rave reviews, consider counseling -- seriously!)
- A description of the article's flaws. Obviously, you should be sending the best possible article you can write -- but if you do perceive flaws or weaknesses in the piece, don't point them out to the editor! If they are serious enough, the editor will find them. If they aren't serious, or can be easily corrected, the editor may send the piece back to you for revision.
- Explanations of why you are sending material that doesn't match the publication's guidelines. Never send a letter that attempts to explain away your refusal to conform to a publication's stated needs or requirements -- and never assume that your article will be the one to "change an editor's mind." If your article is 2000 words longer than the stated word limit, or written from the first-person POV of your dog, or typed on pink paper, don't try to explain. Simply rewrite.
- An explanation of why the article "differs" from your assignment or proposal. Sometimes a change is appropriate (you find new information, or you can't contact an expert you hoped to speak with). These changes should never come as a last minute surprise, however. If you find reason to change the focus of an article after it has been assigned, discuss this with the editor in advance.
- Demands or expectations. Don't tell an editor what you expect to be paid, or what terms you will offer -- especially if those differ from the payment or terms specified in the publication's guidelines. (One of my favorite cover letters was a 3x5 card with the typed phrase, "I am a professional and deserve your HIGHEST RATES!") If you wish to negotiate payment or contract terms, do so before you submit the finished article (or after you become an established contributor).
- Opinions of your family, friends, or writing teachers. Editors are not interested in what your family, friends, loved ones, writing group, or writing instructor think of your work. Editors form their own opinions -- and regard references to the opinions of others to be a sure sign of amateurism. And please, never, ever tell an editor that your writing teacher suggested that you submit your work to that publication!
- A list of prior rejections. Never tell an editor that this same article or story has been rejected by other publications. In the first place, most editors like to believe that they are your "first choice." In the second, editors are more likely to respect the opinions of other editors: If your piece has already been rejected by five other editors in the field, the current editor is likely to assume those other editors had good reasons for their decision. Most importantly, never imply that the other editors were "stupid" and that you are confident that this editor will be smart enough, clever enough, or kind enough to make the "right" decision. (S/he will, but it won't be the decision you're hoping for.)
The bottom line is simple. A good cover letter won't sell your manuscript, but it also won't hurt your chances of acceptance. A bad cover letter, on the other hand, may shoot down your submission before the editor even reaches the first page. So by all means, cover your work -- and yourself -- by keeping your letter short, sweet, and professional.
When Cover Letters Go Bad...
Here are a few examples of the wrong kind of cover letter:
More than I needed to know
- "I am a 33-year-old housewife and mother of four. Up until two years ago I had never written anything."
- "I am a single parent of two children. My hobbies are reading, writing and knitting."
- "I am currently a substitute teacher with a lifelong penchant for daydreaming with my thoughts and emotions."
- "I am a writer by nature, but only at the urging of my contemporaries have I finally decided to submit my work for publication." (Who else would urge you, if not your contemporaries -- unless you're channeling?)
- "I'm 77, without too many years left, and I don't wish to use that time writing an article that will be unpublished." (OK, I cheated; that was from a query. It was submitted in faded grey type on pink paper; I didn't feel I had enough years left to read an entire manuscript in that format.)
- "Reader's Digest returned this manuscript. I was advised to submit it to your company. Enjoy!" (I didn't.)
How's that again?
- "Have you ever dreamed of being agent 007? An other dream you might have you looking for some drug smuggle or difussing a bomb at the last second?"
- "Life is a donut hole; we are surrounded with great expectations, yet, in the end -- nothing." (Pretty much described the submission.)
- "It is a human interest comment with a moral regarding sensitivity and compassion."
- "You will find enclosed one humorous personal experience plus one SASE." (Good; I haven't had a humorous experience all day.)
- "Enclosed are four letters from my dog."
- "This whole article is, of course, just a thought."
Anything you say!
- "Decisions - Decisions - Make this one fast!" (I did.)
- "Please publish the enclosed character study." (I didn't.)
- "Incidentally, after checking your word rates in the Writer's Market, I'm quite disappointed to find them on the very low end of the scale -- compared to other magazines with which I'm presently working."
- "Give me info on how I can draw funnies and caricatures for your magazine. Make sure I WILL be paid (CASH ONLY). Send postage-free envelopes." (This was written on the back of a magazine blow-in subscription card.)
Find Out More...
- Cover Me -- I'm Going In!, by John Floyd
Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen
This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.|
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.
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