Ah, cover letters. Who needs ’em, right? Well, unfortunately, you do, if you’re going to be submitting your work to publishers. But cover letters don’t have to be difficult; in fact, they’re pretty damn easy if you follow a few simple guidelines. So let’s take a closer look at cover letter construction and see if we can’t build one together.
Okay, the first rule of cover letters is do exactly what the submission guidelines tell you to do. Do not FTFFD this thing (that’s fail to follow fucking direction if you’re new to the blog). Some publishers want very specific things in a cover letter, so make sure you give them exactly what they want.
Rejectomancy points deducted for FTFFD: -5 (What’s this?)
Here’s a pretty standard set of cover letter guidelines from a publisher to whom I recently sent a story.
In your cover letter, please include your legal name, byline (if different from your legal name), the story’s approximate word count, and your publication history.
Pretty straightforward, right? So let’s go ahead and build a cover letter based on these guidelines. We’ll pretend I’m sending my (fake) short story “Attack of the Moon Zombies” to the (very much fake) publication Z-Train Monthly. This will be an email cover letter, by the way, but it could probably work as a snail mail cover letter as well.
Step 1) The salutation. I think the safest thing to do is just go with “Dear Editors” or “To the Editors.” It’s not overly familiar, you don’t have to go looking for a specific editor’s name (and then risk sending it to the wrong person), and hey, it’s going to be right just about every time. I mean, who else is gonna read your story? In fact, the only reason I can think of not to use “Dear Editors” is if the guidelines specifically ask you to address the letter to an individual.
Step 2) The body. The trick here is to get the publisher the necessary information plus any additional information they’ve requested as quickly and efficiently as possible.
First things first: my first sentence needs to establish why I’m sending a letter, what I’m sending them, and that I actually know where I’m sending it. My first sentence looks like this: Please consider my story “Attack of the Moon Zombies” for publication in Z-Train Monthly.
Okay, now that I’ve established my purpose, I’ll start getting the publisher the additional info they want, starting with word count. My second sentence is: The story is approximately 2,500 words in length. Since this publication asked for an “approximate” word count, I think rounding up or down to the nearest hundred is fine, as long as that number still fits within the publisher’s guidelines for story length.
The next piece of requested info I’ll add is my publication history. I put this info in a separate paragraph, and again, I’m going to keep it short and sweet. I usually go with my most recent publications, but if you’ve published a story in a well regarded, well known magazine, you should probably mention that. Does that kind of thing make an impact on an editor? I don’t know, honestly. Maybe? Ultimately, I think it’s the quality of the story that sells the story, but a publication in a well known, pro-paying parket certainly doesn’t hurt you chances. Three publications seems to be the magic number in almost every set of guidelines or example cover letters I’ve seen, so I wouldn’t list more than that.
With all that in mind, my publication history might look like this: My fiction has appeared in Awesome Stories of Awesomeness, SparkleVamp Quarterly, and Totally Rad Pro-Paying Magazine. (Yeah, I think you should alphabetize the names of the publications).
Step 3) Closing and signature. I struggled with which closing to use when I first started submitting. There are so many choices. “Sincerely” is a solid choice as is “Regards,” but I think a simple “Thank you” is a good way to go. It’s polite, not overly familiar, and, hey, who’s gonna get upset at being thanked?
Lastly, I’ll add my legal name below the closing, which is the last piece of information this particular publisher requested. If you have a byline that’s different from your legal name, I think the best thing to do is to put it in parentheses, clearly labeled, next to your legal name, like this: Aeryn Rudel (Byline: A. Rudel)
Step 4) Putting it all together. Okay, that’s everything, so let’s have a look at the complete letter.
Please consider my story “Attack of the Moon Zombies” for publication in Z-Train Monthly. The story is approximately 2,500 words in length.
My fiction has appeared in Awesome Stories of Awesomeness, SparkleVamp Quarterly, and Totally Rad Pro-Paying Magazine.
Aeryn Rudel (Byline: A. Rudel)
I’ve kept the letter short, to the point, and most importantly, I’ve given the publisher every piece of information they wanted. I use the letter above as my basic cover letter template, and it’s the one I send to publishers that don’t have specific guidelines. The letter is easy to modify if I encounter a publisher that requests more or less info.
What else might a publisher ask for in a cover letter? A bio they can use if they publish your story is fairly common. In these cases, the publisher will give you a word count maximum for the bio. Don’t go over. I’ve also seen guidelines that ask you to give a short synopsis of the story you’re submitting. Those are always tough, and I think the best thing to do in those cases is keep it to a single sentence if you can.
Another thing I often see is a suggestion to include personal information that’s relevant to the story you’re submitting. So, for example, in the letter above I might add, “My story is about fighting zombies on the moon, and I am currently employed as a zombie-fighting astronaut.” If you have something like that (I never have), my advice is to keep it short and to the point, and make double certain it really does relate to the story.
Well, that’s what I’ve got for cover letters. If my approach doesn’t do it for you, a simple Google search will get you a bunch of articles written by folks with a shit-ton more experience and knowledge than yours truly. But if you must click a link, I don’t think you can do much better than this handy and informative how-to article from the excellent speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons. (They also espouse a brief and simple cover letter, by the way.)
How do you handle cover letters? Tell me about it in the comments.