The Truth about Cover Letters

February 14, 2010 at 12:39 pm , by Alyce Wilson

On this Valentine’s Day weekend, I’m spending some time going through Wild Violet submissions before a night out with my husband. Predictably, the majority of them are not right for our journal, which makes the ones that do work shine all the brighter.

While many magazines do request (or even require) cover letters, let me give it to you straight: the cover letter will not get you published. No matter how many publishing credits you have, or degrees (with honors!), or awards and accolades, unless your writing works for the publication in question, you’re heading for a letter that begins, “Thank you for sending your work…”

In fact, I must admit, I don’t even read cover letters until after I’ve made a determination on the submission. I do this for two reasons: my overflowing mailbox takes enough time to sort through without reading anything extra; unless I’ve accepted a work, the biography doesn’t really matter. For this reason, Wild Violet has published both new writers and ones with impressive pedigrees. Some cover letters include explanations about the work and the process behind it. While that might be interesting to include on a bio page later, the work has to stand on its own.

That said, amateurish or rude cover letters will irk me when I finally read them and can sway me if I’m on the fence. Ultimately, though, for me, it’s always the work that matters.

Editors: How much do cover letters matter to you?
Writers: What do you typically include in your cover letters and why?


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2 Comments so far

by Barbara Custer

On February 14, 2010 at 7:03 pm

As an editor for NTD, I get most of my cover letters by email, and lots of times, I find that the way it’s written will give me a preview on the writing. If I see a letter that says, “Dear Editor,” I expect sloppy writing and might only read one or two pages of submission. If it says something like “Dear Ms. Custer,” I antipate something that is well written and read on. And if the author addresses me by my nickname, I might think gosh, that person sure did their homework on me, and look forward to reading. But in the end, the best written letter will not guarantee an acceptance.

Barbara Custer
Author of Dark Side of the Moon

by Fred Coppersmith

On February 15, 2010 at 9:00 am

A short, to-the-point cover letter is good, and a couple of impressive publishing credits might convince me to give a piece a second look (or at least a more lenient first look), but I tend to just skim them and focus on the piece itself. I particularly don’t like plot summaries — go on, spoil your story for me — and just ignore those. I know some people ignore cover letters altogether and prefer to read a piece blind. And the truth is, a long list of publishing credits from places nobody’s ever heard of is (as as Rachel Swirsky’s recently pointed out) probably worse than no credits at all. I hate to say it, but when I see certain names and credits in my slush pile, I know I’m probably not going to accept that story. I still give every story a fair shake — however impressive or unimpressive the cover letter — because why else am I doing this, if not to be surprised by the stories I get?

I’ve never accepted a story because of something in the cover letter. In fact, I’ve sometimes received impressive cover letters, from authors with impressive (to me anyway) credits, and rejected the stories.

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