How to Write a Cover Letter

If you’re submitting a short story to a magazine, they’re probably going to want a cover letter. But what exactly are you supposed to put? This is going to be the editor’s first impression of you, and, like any first impression, you want it to be positive.

When I first started submitting, I was clueless about how to write a cover letter, and judging by the submissions I’ve gotten at BSR, a lot of other writers are too. So I did what I always do when I’m clueless: I asked somebody does know. In this case, my writing mentor.

Here are the Golden Rules she gave me for writing a cover letter.

Rule Number One: Your cover letter does NOT sell your story

Too often, I’ll get a cover letter that thinks it’s a query letter. While a query letter and a cover letter sound alike, there is a key difference. The job of a query letter is to sell the work. It starts with an exciting hook and a summary of the story. It should go something like this:

All his life, Marvin has thought that he’s just a normal dairy cow. That is until one day on the farm, when he is visited by the god Hermes who informs him that he is actually the reincarnation of the Greek Titan Chronos, who had been locked away for years in the underworld by his son Zeus. If Marvin is to have any hope of eluding Zeus’s grasp and saving his humble dairy farm, he must come to master his godly powers before it’s too late.

This would make a decent query letter but a very poor cover letter. Remember, your cover letter is not supposed to sell your story. All it’s supposed to do is briefly introduce yourself and your publication credits. Including a summary just makes you sound unprofessional.

Rule Number Two: Keep it simple and to the point

Here is one of my cover letters:

Dear [editor’s first and last name],

Please consider my short story for publication in your magazine. I have been previously published in Nebula Rift, Fabula Argentea, and Bards and Sages Quarterly.

Sincerely,

Matt Hollingsworth

Notice I don’t list all my publication credits: only the three that I’m most proud of. Also, don’t include a bio unless asked. And if you are asked to include a bio, you probably don’t want to mention anything too controversial such as your career as a stripper or your crippling drug habit (unless these are relevant to the story).

If this sounds formulaic, that’s because it is. Your story should be where you show your creativity, not your cover letter.

Rule Number Three: Read the directions

Every magazine is different and sometimes they want the cover letters to be formatted a specific way. Sometimes they ask for a short bio (usually in third person) or your contact information. Sometimes they’ll ask for naked pictures although I’ve been told that’s a red flag.

I’ll admit, I’ve been guilty of skimming the instructions. I’ve submitted in the wrong file format. I’ve included my name in the cover letter when the submission was supposed to be blind. And I was rejected for it. You will be too.

I know that submitting is exciting and you want to get your work out there, but if you want to have a chance at publication, you’ll need a cover letter that both sounds professional and follows the rules of the magazine you’re submitting too. Don’t let your hard work be rejected because of something so simple.

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