Many moons ago, while I was still a graduate student, I worked as an Assistant Fiction Editor for Willow Springs in Spokane, Washington.
When you work as member of a literary magazine’s editorial staff, it’s easy to become jaded; you quickly learn “what not to do” by reading through piles of unsolicited manuscripts.
For one thing, you’ll be amazed how many writers fail to read and adhere to your magazine’s submission guidelines. As part of these guidelines, many magazines will request some additional information from you in the form of a cover letter.
At Willow Springs, a few cover letters were pinned to a cork board for ridicule in our main office. These cover letters were truly awful. One spanned four pages, walking us through the details of a man’s sad life. (Magazines want quality poetry and prose; they don’t care about your life story.) Another contained a headshot of a very ugly woman. (Including a headshot in your cover letter is unprofessional and unnecessary; magazines don’t care what you look like.) Most readers on editorial staffs are looking for reasons to send you a rejection letter. Don’t let them find these reasons while reading your cover letter.
First, make sure to address your given editor by name. If you are submitting fiction, find the fiction editor’s name on the masthead and address your submission directly to her/him. Even if your manuscript gets rerouted to other readers, you will still give these readers the impression that you are familiar with their magazine. Just make sure that you spell her/his name correctly. And since some first names are difficult to distinguish as being male or female, I use the person’s full name in the address.
The goal of a cover letter is to establish your own credibility as a professional and give yourself a fair read. As such, you will want to share any past publications you’ve had. If you haven’t had any yet, that’s OK. Many magazines pride themselves on publishing unknown writers. They want to be able to say, “We publish X new writers per year” or “We published her first story before she ‘blew up.'” As such, to signal the close of your letter, if you haven’t been published yet, I highly recommend explicitly stating, “This would be my first published piece.”
Make sure you edit and proofread your cover letter. Your sentence skills in the cover letter give readers a first impression of your grammar and punctuation skills. Be sure to make this a positive first impression.
Unlike this post, your cover letter should also be short and sweet. Editors are reading tons of manuscripts. Send them into yours with momentum, and hopefully, positive thoughts.
Here’s what I currently use as a cover letter:
Dear [Fiction Editor’s full name],
Please find attached my X-word short story, “Title.”
To tell you a little about myself, I hold an MFA from Eastern Washington University; and my previous work has appeared in Live Wire, Almost Five Quarterly, Every Day Fiction, Breakwater Review, Penumbra, Double Dare Press, and Konundrum Engine Literary Review. In 2007, I placed third in Zoetrope’s Short Fiction Contest. In my free time, I contribute to my blog, “A Labor of Love: A Blog for Struggling Fiction Writers by a Struggling Fiction Writer” (RyanShiroma.com). I live with my wife in Southern California, where I teach English at Fullerton College and El Camino College.
I hope you like my story. Thank you for your time.
Well, there you have it! I hope this information helps you create your own professional cover letters when you’re ready to submit your work for publication. (And if you’re ever in Spokane, I recommend Dicks Hamburgers.) Write your heart out!
Photo credit: Patrick Q / Foter.com / CC BY-NC