Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by John Floyd
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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 It Look Like?
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:
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.
A Word on CredentialsHere's a good rule to follow regarding previous publication credits: If you have them, say so, but don't make a long list. Mention a few of the more impressive credits and leave it at that. It's sometimes a good idea to customize those a bit, depending on what type of magazine you're submitting to. The editor at The Atlantic Monthly might be more impressed to know you've been published in The New Yorker than in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. If you've not yet acquired any credits, don't apologize for it -- in fact, don't mention it at all. According to Laurie Henry in the Handbook of Short Story Writing, Volume II, "If you have no previous publications, it's still a good idea to personalize your submission with a brief (one or two sentence) truthful statement of some kind." When I first started submitting stories, I just said, "I am a former Air Force captain, and spent 26 years with IBM Corporation."
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.
Tips on the Perfect Cover Letter
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.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Mississippi writer John Floyd has sold more than 500 short stories and fillers to 100+ publications, including Strand Magazine, Grit, Woman's World, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. His stories have been nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and the Derringer Award.