Thursday, October 6, 2011

How to Series: Writing a Cover Letter


I'm introducing a new feature to the blog this week.

I've written several "how to" posts, so I thought I'd formalize these by unifying them under one umbrella.

And thus, the "How to Series" was born.

This isn't intended to be a weekly feature or even a monthly one; the "How to Series" exists simply to demonstrate how I approach an aspect of writing. I plan to cover a wide range of topics including simple things like formatting a manuscript, finding places for your work, using Twitter, submitting a piece, etc.

The inaugural edition will focus on something I needed help with when I was starting my writing career: writing a cover letter. This applies primarily to fiction short stories.

Let's say you have an awesome short story you'd like to "release into the wild." You have a specific market in mind, you read through the submission guidelines, and you see the publisher wants a cover letter.

When I sent off my very first short story, I didn't know what to put here. Did they want to know where I worked? Should I tell them I've been writing since sixth grade? Should I inform them I started taking writing seriously more than a year ago? Should this include a complete summary of my life and how I came to this point?

The answer to all of those questions is a resounding "NO."

The cover letter, honestly, is shockingly simple in most cases. I say "most cases" because I've sent a few short stories to places that DO want to know a little more about you. As an aside, please honor this Cardinal Rule: Read the submission guidelines. They differ from publication to publication, sometimes in small ways and other times in major ways.

Now back to the cover letter. It consists of four basic parts:

1. Salutation
2. Story title and word count
3. Publication history
4. Closing

Let's look at these point-by-point.

Salutation. This opens just like a business letter. If you personally know the editor in question, you're probably fine with starting the letter with "Dear Sam" and using a comma. If you know who the editor is, but don't know him/her personally, go with "Dear Mr. Smith" and use a colon (like you would on a business letter). If you don't know who the editor is, go with something a little more generic, such as "Dear Editors" (with a colon) or "Dear [Publication Name]" (where publication name is the title of the magazine/journal you're submitting to; also use a colon in this case).

Use the third option (Dear Editors/Dear [Publication Name]) as a last resort. In many cases, the publication will list the editor's name in the submission guidelines. If it's not there, spend a few minutes on Google to see if you can figure out the editor's name. Also, if you're not sure if the editor is a man or woman (let's say the editor is listed as D.J. Davis, which could be either a man or a woman), a Google search should help you find out that information.

Story title and word count. The first line of your cover letter should be concise and to the point. Simply mention the title of your story and the approximate word count.
I'm submitting my short story "Terror in the Deli" for consideration in [Publication Name]. It runs approximately 4,000 words.
Seriously. That's it. That's all the information you need to put in the first line. You don't need to summarize the story or gush about what makes it special. Doing so is the sign of a newbie, and with the number of submissions editors get, that's the last thing you want.

CAVEAT: Some publications WILL ask for a summary of your story. If that's the case, it will be explicitly stated in the submission guidelines. Otherwise, stick with the approach above.

Publication history. Again, keep this section brief. If you've had 20 short stories published, don't list each and every one. If you haven't had a single story published, leave this line out. The editor will get the implication.
My short stories have appeared in Wordsmith Weekly, ABC Press, and Kiss a Wookie Monthly. My novel Walk Like an Egyptian is published by Excellent Books.
The key here is giving the editor enough information to know you take your writing seriously...and that others have as well. Just don't overdo it.

Closing. In the last line of your letter, thank the editor for his/her time and consideration. After that, close your letter and "sign" it. Use "sincerely" or "regards" or something like that. I usually reiterate my email address and sometimes include the URL for my blog under my name.
Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
Matt Adams
[email address]
[blog address]
Now we have all the parts of our cover letter--the salutation, story title and word count, publication history, and closing--let's look at the whole thing. Your email should look something like this:
Dear Mr. Davis:

I'm submitting my short story "Terror in the Deli" for consideration in [Publication Name]. It runs approximately 4,000 words.

My short stories have appeared in Wordsmith Weekly, ABC Press, and Kiss a Wookie Monthly. My novel Walk Like an Egyptian is published by Excellent Books.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Matt Adams
[email address]
That's fewer than 60 words for the whole cover letter.

The best policy for these cover letters is to keep it simple. Be polite, respectful, and professional. Spell-check it just like you would your short story. Some editors may not ever read your cover letter--they may skip straight to your story--but the ones who do will appreciate your brevity and professionalism.

No comments:

Post a Comment