Today I'm going to talk cover letters. (I'll pause until the fireworks die down.) As you know, I've been serving as an editor for Echo Ink Review which gives me some insight into the workings of a literary magazine. This means my inbox overflows with short stories and cover letters.
Now some of you might be wondering why I'm even talking about cover letters. After all, the cover letter doesn't really mean anything. It's the story I'm after.
Well, yes. And no.
Yes, the story is King. I want a story that grabs me by the throat and doesn't let go. I want to become so engrossed in your story that when my kids pound on the door I ignore them and keep on reading. So you're right, it's the story I'm after. We're not publishing cover letters after all.
However, the first thing I see is your cover letter and believe it or not, that letter tells me a lot about the quality of your writing and your level of commitment to the craft of writing. If you haven't bothered to research the guidelines for your cover letter, if it's two pages long and full of grammatical errors, if you go on and on and on about the theme of your short story, well then I know without even reading your story that you are a beginning writer. I'll still read the story, but I'm going to start reading expecting to reject the piece. And you know what? So far, the quality of the story has always matched the quality of the cover letter.
Here's an example of a good cover letter:
Attached please find my short story, Insert Title Here. My work has been published in several journals, including: Journal Name Here, Journal Name Here, and Journal Name Here. My story, Insert Title, was recently nominated for a Pushcart.
This is a simultaneous submission, and I will let you know immediately if it is accepted elsewhere.
Your name goes here
That's it. You don't need to do anything fancy. Short. Sweet. To the point. If you don't have any publications yet, don't worry about it. Every editor wants to be the one who discovers a great new writer. Just leave off the publication history part of the letter. If you have an MA, MFA, etc. that's good. List it if you'd like, but it's not necessary. No awards? No biggie. I don't care. If I've commented on a previous story you've sent to Echo Ink Review, please feel free to mention that communication. In fact, I welcome that. Unfortunately, we read so many great stories it's hard for me to remember everyone's name.
Do Not tell me you modeled your short story after Big Name Famous Author. Or that in your story you grapple with Pick a Big Important Theme and Insert Here (Life, Death, Coming of Age, blah, blah blah.) Your theme should be evident when I read the story. If you have to tell me about it, the story is not working.
You don't need to tell me about your day job unless it pertains to the story you're writing. For example, I'm a Master Gardener and write for Kentucky Gardener. If gardening plays a role in the story, I mention that I'm a Master Gardener and write for Kentucky Gardener. Those facts tell the editor (who might not be as familiar with gardening as I am) that I understand my subject matter. That's the only time I mention other jobs, etc. However, if you're writing about child abuse/drug abuse/alcohol abuse/blah, blah, blah I don't need to know that you have personally experienced any of that. I am sorry for you, but honestly it's just not my business. Finally, please don't tell me about your wife/husband/kids/dogs/lizards...you get the picture.
I hope this has been helpful. Spend some time crafting a simple, respectful cover letter and editors will take your work more seriously. This shows that you have taken the time to research the field and study the craft of writing.