So you've finally written that short story. You've written it, you've polished it, and you're ready to send it out to an editor. But wait -- don't send it yet. There's one more piece of writing you might want to do first.
A cover letter, or covering letter as it's sometimes called, is a way to "introduce" your manuscript -- and yourself -- to a prospective editor. It can showcase your writing, announce your credentials, and demonstrate your professionalism -- even before the editor starts to read your story.
But be careful not to confuse a cover letter with a query letter. Though they are similar in many ways, a query letter's main purpose is to "sell" an idea, usually to an agent or an editor. It contains a detailed description of the manuscript or project, and is intended to convince the recipient to ask to see the manuscript itself. A query letter is almost never used with short fiction; a cover letter is almost always used.
What does a cover letter look like? It's a simple, brief business letter, addressed to a specific editor and mailed in the same envelope with your story. In fact, it should usually be paper- clipped in front of the first page of your manuscript. The letter should be single-spaced, with either standard block or semiblock format and double-spacing between paragraphs, on plain white 8 1/2" by 11" paper or tasteful, pastel stationery.
My cover letters generally consist of two or three short paragraphs, followed by one or two closing sentences. The first paragraph includes the story title, information about previous publications of this story (if any), and a reference to any requests the editor might have made to see my work. The second paragraph mentions publishing credits, significant writing awards, and any personal background related to the story. The third paragraph, if included at all, informs the editor that an SASE is enclosed and that the manuscript is disposable. I sometimes close the letter with a short sentence like "Thank you for your time" or "Please contact me if you have any questions," followed by "Sincerely," or "Cordially," and my full name.
Here's an example of what I typically say in a cover letter accompanying an unsolicited short story manuscript:
Dear [Editor's Name]:
Please consider the enclosed story, "Silent Partner." I hope you'll want to use it in a future issue.
My publication credits include more than 300 short stories and fillers in magazines like Grit, Woman's World, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Two of my stories were recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and another for the Derringer Award (by the Short Mystery Fiction Society).
I've also enclosed an SASE for your reply. If my story doesn't interest you, there is no need to return the manuscript itself.
Thank you for your time.
Be careful not to include a detailed description of your manuscript. A very brief description is sometimes appropriate "a short story set in rural Mississippi," etc.), but don't overdo it. The cover letter should never be a blatant sales pitch. Let your story stand on its own.
It's also perfectly acceptable to put in a few words about personal experiences, IF that has a bearing on the story itself. If you're submitting a tale about life in the Arizona desert, it would certainly be appropriate to mention your three hikes into the Grand Canyon, and if your story is a police procedural, the editor might like to know that you spent a year as Assistant District Attorney. Again, keep it brief.
Here are some guidelines to follow when you prepare a cover letter:
So, you might ask, is a cover letter always necessary? In my opinion it is, unless a specific editor's guidelines (or market listing) tell you not to send one. "After all," says Scott Edelstein in Manuscript Submission, "you are not merely a writing machine sending a product to an editing machine; you are a human being making contact with another human being. A cover letter establishes a person-to-person relationship... between you and the recipient of the manuscript." There is no other way, to my knowledge, for a relatively unknown writer to do that. Why not take advantage of it?
One final thought: the greatest cover letter in the world won't help a substandard manuscript. The real deal, the star of the show, and the reason for your submission is the story itself. The cover letter only introduces it. But a good introduction never hurts.
Find Out More...