The following column explores the different ways one can write a cover letter when submitting a piece of writing to a journal or magazine for publication. This column looks at a number of styles and tones an author may consider when writing a cover letter, and how those elements could be tinkered with according to the actual piece that is being submitted and where. It also points out the standard aspects of a cover letter to include. This column is 1330 words and is not under consideration elsewhere. I have specifically written it for you.
To Whom It May Concern,
There are a number of ways one could draft a cover letter. An author could begin with “To Whom It May Concern.” This sort of formal salutation concerns me. Along with the impersonal tone that it creates, I’m not quite sure why a writer would want to have such an alarming-ish word in their greeting—“concern.” I mean, really, do you immediately want the reader to feel as if she has to be concerned about something? In my opinion, it’d be like saying, “Dear Sir/Madam: This letter possibly contains information that may concern you.”
Has a different ring to it, no?
The standard elements of a cover letter consist of a salutation, the title of the piece being submitted, the genre and a brief explanation of the work, the piece’s word count, if the submission is under consideration elsewhere, and then it ends with a basic type of “goodbye” or “thank you.” Addressing your cover letter with “Dear Editor” is also a bit impersonal, but at least the editor will know that you realize an actual editor will be reading your work and not just some vaguely concerned individual. This particular example of a cover letter, titled “Dear Editor,” is 146 words, which is also relatively standard. Finally, if this piece of writing were under consideration at other journals, then you would want to tell the editor that she is not the only one reading your work (subtext: jump on this one while it’s still available!).
Dear [insert editor’s name here],
It’s never a bad idea to look at a journal’s masthead. In fact, it’s a pretty bad idea to not look at a journal’s masthead. In fact in fact, a journal’s masthead might tell you something about the journal. In fact in fact in fact, you should always look at a journal’s masthead. Here’s why:
- Reading the bios of the people who put the journal together will give you a superb glimpse into the journal’s aesthetic. These are the people, after all, who get to decide what will be included in the journal. Just because they’re people who know how to read and you have a piece of writing doesn’t mean that your piece is a good fit with their specific interests. It would be like walking into a dentist’s office and assuming the dentist could remove your ruptured appendix because you know, a dentist has a medical degree and you have a medical problem, so same difference, right?
- The more you familiarize yourself with literary journals, such as how to navigate different journals’ websites and beginning to recognize the names of people associated with those journals, the stronger your knowledge of the lit mag world will be—which can perhaps lead to more acceptances as you become more informed about more journals. Knowledge is power, people.
- It ensures that you aren’t submitting the same piece to the same editor multiple times. Anecdote: a few years ago I was the nonfiction editor for three different literary journals (we’ll call them A, B, and C) at the same time. On two different occasions, an author submitted one piece to Journal A; and when I rejected it, the author then submitted it to Journal B; and then when I rejected it again, the author then submitted the same piece to Journal C; and I, well, you get the point. That author obviously did not look at the mastheads. Again, this happened twice. Now I know each journal is different, and what fits in one journal might not fit in another. That’s obvious. However, even though each journal’s mission and aesthetic is different, if those three journals are all edited by the same editor, then your chances of getting accepted in one, after being rejected from the other two, are fairly slim. Actually, no. They are non-existent. If an editor rejected you from one magazine, but liked the piece and wanted to publish it in a different magazine, she would tell you that in her rejection letter. All of this is to say that at least make sure you are submitting not just to a variety of lit journals, but check the mastheads to know that you are submitting to a variety of editors, as well.
- Including the editor’s name in your salutation will show that you did a little bit of looking around their journal before submitting—which is always a plus!
- People like getting mail, especially mail with their name on it. I know emails and cover letters aren’t as exciting as receiving the Easter basket my mother still sends me in the mail every year because she’s my mother and she’s hilarious, and so mailing an Easter basket to her thirty-three-year-old daughter is so something she would do. Still, seeing any piece of mail/writing directly addressed to you makes you feel special.
So please take a moment to look at a journal’s masthead (usually listed on either their “About” page or their “Contact” page) because nothing bad will happen if you do.
If you want to be a bit ballsy, humor can be a terrifically fun thing to toy around with in your cover letter. I wouldn’t do something terribly wacky like write your entire cover letter in Igpay Atinlay; but employing some fresh word choice can give the editor a hoot, which means that you’re getting the editor to like your writing before she even reads the actual writing you are submitting for publication. I, for example, usually begin my cover letters with “Howdy” because who says “Howdy” anymore?!? (And hey—don’t be stealing my “Howdy” now. I’m not trying to start a trend.) I also enjoy ending cover letters with “Enjoy.” It’s a nice, short directive and gets the editor moving along to the actual submission.
Though there is one thing to consider: don’t provide a humorous cover letter when your piece is not humorous. That will just make the editor feel like you are lying to her, and most people don’t like being lied to or feeling mislead. Except for maybe mystery writers. They tend to like red herrings. Regardless, use your cover letter as a way to quickly convey what type of writing the editor is soon to read in your submission. Call it the sneak preview.
Dear _____________ (name of editor of the department to which you are submitting),
In case you just can’t decide what you want in your cover letter or how to say it, use the following template to create a standard one for the time being:
I am submitting a __________ (genre of writing) titled “[title of piece],” which is about ____________, ____________, and ___________ (three interesting and descriptive words that convey the purpose of the piece). The piece also explores _____________ (insert something here that feels unique to your piece either plot-wise or tone-wise). “[Title of piece]” is ___________ (number) words and ____________ (is/isn’t) under consideration elsewhere.
____________ (Your name)
To all of those readers out there,
Next month, we’ll take a look at patience and how to survive the process of response-waiting.
Chelsey Clammer is the author of BodyHome and won the 2016 Red Hen Press Nonfiction Manuscript Award for her essay collection, Circadian. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Essay Daily, McSweeney’s, and Black Warrior Review, among many others. She’s the essays editor for The Nervous Breakdown. @ChelseyClammer www.chelseyclammer.com.
Chelsey is also an instructor for WOW! Women On Writing. She’s offering column readers a Submissions Consultation of up to 12 pages (4,500 words). Find out more.
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Submit ’Til You Make It