Back to Basics: The Cover Letter

Hey, let’s talk about cover letters again. I see this subject pop up a lot when it comes to submissions. There are a lot of opinions, and my opinion goes something like this: keep it short, keep it simple, and follow the guidelines. Let me show you what I mean.

The Basic Cover Letter

If the publisher doesn’t ask for anything specific in the cover letter, I generally go with the basic letter below. It ticks all the boxes I think editors generally want in a cover letter, and it’s easy to add (or subtract) content if a publisher wants something specific.

Dear Fiction Editors1,

Please consider my short story [Story Name]2 for publication at [Publisher Name]3. The story is approximately [# of words]4 words in length. My short fiction has recently appeared in [Market 1], [Market 2], and [Market 3]5.


Name (byline)7

Okay, so let’s break this sucker down.

  1. The salutation. If you are absolutely, one-hundred percent sure of the editor’s name and that person will in fact be reading your story, then, sure, go ahead and address the cover letter to that person. If you have any doubt whatsoever, then use fiction editor(s) or editor(s). It’s safe, technically correct, and I can’t imagine an editor would get offended at being called, uh, an editor.
  2. Story name. Pretty self-explanatory here, just make sure you put the story name in quotation marks. I’d treat novelettes the same way, with quotes, as they are essentially long stories. Novellas can be tricky, though. The research I’ve done says a standalone novella (one not part of anthology) should be italicized*. If you’re submitting a novella to a short story market, it would generally be standalone, so I’d go with italics there.
  3. Publisher name. Again, self-explanatory, but make double, extra sure you spell the publisher’s name right and use the full name of the market as it’s listed on the masthead. The titles of both print and online magazine are italicized (according to CMS).
  4. Word count. If the market doesn’t ask for an exact word count (if they do, then just drop the approximately), I round up or down to the nearest fifty. For example, if my story is 4,359 words, I’d round it to 4,350. If it’s 4,187, I’d round to 4,200. If rounding puts you over the word count maximum for the market, then I think it’s perfectly acceptable to list the exact word count.
  5. Previous publications. A lot of markets ask for previous credits in cover letters, so I generally include them even if the publisher has no specific guidelines. Include no more than three and go with recent, best, or a little of both. I generally go with recent, but if you’ve got a big market or two under your belt, go with best. In that case, just drop the word recently, and you’re good to go. Remember to italicize the titles of print and online magazines. All that said, if the publisher doesn’t ask for previous credits, you could drop this entire section and have a perfectly serviceable cover letter.
  6. Closing. Use your favorite here, but I’d avoid anything too informal. I like best and regards, but sincerely works too.
  7. Signature. I like to put all my relevant contact info here (many publishers even ask for it), which is usually name, address, and email. I usually put “(byline)” next to my name so there can be no confusion on how I would like to be credited if my story is accepted. That’s entirely optional, of course. You could add your phone number, but I don’t think it’s really necessary unless the publisher asks for it (some do).
*Some submission software doesn’t allow italics, and in that case there’s no need to worry about it. Some software allows html tags, though, so you can italicize by bracketing the title likes this: <i>Awesome Spec-Fic Journal</i>.

And that’s the basic cover letter when the publisher doesn’t ask for something specific. (So far I’ve had no complaints) Of course, publishers DO sometimes ask for other things, but any of those elements should be easy to add to this letter.

At the end of the day, my advice with cover letters is to keep it simple, give the editor the important details, and, above all, follow the guidelines. If you make a mistake on your cover letter, like forget to italicize the name of the market or something, it’s not the end of the world. The chances of something like that affecting an editor’s decision on your story are pretty minuscule, really. That said, the cover letter is your shot to make a first impression on the editor. So, you know, try to make it a good one.

Would you add something to this basic cover letter? Tell me about it in the comments.

One Comment on “Back to Basics: The Cover Letter

  1. Pingback: Post #23 – Cover Letters | Jason E. Maddux

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