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FIRST CONTACT: COVER LETTERS
Column by Aeryn Rudel
October 5, 2020
When you send out a short story submission, the cover letter is your first chance to make a good impression on the editor (or at least not a bad one). Luckily, writing a professional cover letter is easy. Let me show you how.
THE BASIC COVER LETTER
What do editors want to see in a cover letter? Well, some detail exactly what they want in their submission guidelines. In that case, just follow the guidelines to the letter. If a publisher doesn’t mention cover letters (and many don’t), then you should always include these four things: your name (and byline), the title of your story, the story’s word count, and, if you have them, a few publishing credits. When you put that together, you’ll end up with something like this:
Please consider my story “The Past, History” for publication at Dark Matter Magazine. The story is approximately 3,500 words in length. My short fiction has appeared in The Arcanist, On Spec, and Pseudopod.
Pretty straightforward, right? I’ve been using this cover letter for years and on hundreds of submissions without issue. But let’s break down its component parts so I can explain why I’ve written it this way.
- Salutation: Unless the guidelines ask you to address the letter to a specific person or persons, go with Dear Editors. It’s always technically correct. Don’t take a guess about who the editor(s) might be.
- Story Title: The title of your micro, flash, or short story should be in quotes.
- Publisher Name: Make sure you get the publisher’s name right and spell it correctly. Also, use the publisher’s name as it appears on their masthead. For example, it’s Dark Matter Magazine not Dark Matter.
- Word Count: If the publication asks for an exact word count (and some do), provide that and drop the approximately. If not, just round up or down to the nearest hundred (if it’s flash fiction, maybe round to the nearest fifty). My story “The Past, History” is 3,470 words in length, so I rounded up to 3,500.
- Past Credits: Pick your three best or most recent (some publishers will ask for one or the other) and list them alphabetically. What if you have no published credits? No problem. Just remove that section and you still have a perfectly acceptable cover letter. We all had to start somewhere.
- Closing: Use your favorite here, but avoid anything too informal. I like best, but sincerely, regards, or even a simple thank you works as well.
- Signature: Use your preferred byline.I like to put all my relevant contact info here too. That’s entirely optional, but it can be handy for the editor to have.
- Email Subject Line: Although not technically part of the cover letter, it is an important part of the email that includes the cover letter, and some publishers have specific guidelines on how they want the subject line to appear. Always follow the guidelines, but if the publisher doesn’t mention the subject line, I generally go with this format: Submission – [story title] – [last name]. So, with the example cover letter, my subject line would be Submission – The Past, History – Rudel. This gives the editor a lot of info at a glance, especially when they’re sifting through tons of emails in their inbox.
In addition to the nuts-and-bolts features of the basic cover letter, some publishers ask for or encourage additional elements. Here are just a few I’ve encounter in submission guidelines (and added to or changed my cover letter accordingly).
- Author Bio: One of the more common requested additions to a cover letter, some publishers ask for a short bio between 50 and 75 words. Add the bio in right after the body of the cover letter.If your bio lists publishing credits, you might remove those from the main body of the cover letter to avoid redundancy.
- Relevant Experience: Sometimes you’ll see a publisher recommend that authors list experience (cultural, professional, personal, etc.) that is relevant to their story in a cover letter. So if you’re a robotics expert and your sci-fi story is about robots, you should absolutely let the publisher know. I like this info right after the “Please consider my story” in the main body of the cover letter.
- Story Synopsis: This pops up in guidelines from time to time. All you need is a quick, broad strokes summary of the plot, a few sentences that lets the publisher know the story is on theme or genre for their magazine or anthology. Drop the synopsis in after the main body of your cover letter. Do NOT include a story synopsis unless the publisher specifically asks for it.
So there you have it, a basic cover letter that’ll meet guidelines for the vast majority of publishers. Feel free to copy my template, add or change what you like, and use it for your own submissions.
Check back next month for more advice on how and where to submit your work or head over to my blog Rejectomancy for oodles of overly analytical articles about the various and sundry parts of writing, submitting, and every author’s favorite subject, rejection.