Writers Workshop:

(Original version published by Writers.com; New version July 2002)

When I wrote my first guidelines as a neophyte small press 'zine editor, I asked for a "charming and informative cover letter" to accompany submissions. I realized that most editors wanted only straightforward, formal, basic-information-offering missives. Not me! Being the writer-friendly type I was, I saw the cover letter as possibly the only chance that editor and writer could make any sort of personal contact. I WANTED to know more about the submitters.

Three 'zines and probably a couple of thousand cover letters later, I have changed my philosophy. Perhaps this editorial epiphany was the result of a general tendency for editors to grow more curmudgeonly with experience, or maybe I'm simply not as interested in personal contact with writers as I once was. Whatever the case, I now see the practicality of what is considered a typical cover letter.

So, what is a cover letter?

Cover letters are simply the letter that a writer sends along with a submission. These are not the same as "query letters." It is standard for nonfiction writers to ask if the editor is interested in what they have to offer -- a query. In general, fiction writers do not query.

Unless an editor has specifically asked for something from a fiction writer, that writer is usually in the lowly position of offering an "unsolicited proposal." No, this is not something you will get arrested for if done in public -- it simply means you are offering your work of fiction to an editor who has not previously requested that you do so.

Cover letters also differ depending on what they are "covering." In the case of an unsolicited proposal of a book manuscript, agents and authors often make more of a "pitch" with a cover letter. You're taking the opportunity to help sell your product with an opening "grabber" statement about the book, describe its possible readership, etc.

But we are dealing with the brief (one page) basic cover letter that you would include with a short fiction submission to an open market. In this case, the story should sell itself and the cover letter needs to be short, informative, and useful.

The absolute essentials are the author's name, address, phone number, eddress, and the title of the story. You should tell the editor if you are making a simultaneous submission; if the story has been previously published, in what form and where (and that includes Web or other electronic publication); and if a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) is enclosed for reply and manuscript return or if the manuscript is disposable and only a business-size SASE is included.

What about rights offered (as in "First North American Serial Rights," etc.)? Although most writers' advice sources tell you to put this in your cover letter as well as on the first page of your manuscript, it's probably really not necessary. In some fields -- like science fiction and fantasy -- it is not even recommended practice. Remember you already mentioned previous publication, so the editor has a good idea already.

If you have legitimate publishing credentials, you can mention two or three of them. Legitimate? Well, this is where it gets tricky. Listing several non-paying markets -- especially webzines -- that an editor has never heard of (or worse, that the editor HAS heard of and is disgusted by) won't do you much good. There are non-paying markets that are impressive -- usually critically acclaimed magazines and literary journals -- but it pretty much depends on what field you are in. Use common sense. If you have professional non-fiction writing credits, but few or none in fiction, you can mention them: "Previous credits include interviews with Madonna for 'Spin,' Kurt Vonnegut for 'Playboy,' and my regular weekly column in 'The New York Times'..." Never send page-long (or even multiple pages of) publishing credentials, a biography, or résumé. They simply are not going to be read.

It's also acceptable and helpful to give a hint, if applicable, of your individual qualifications to write a particular story. "The story takes place in the jungles of Thailand where I spent many happy childhood years being cared for by temple monkeys." "The inspiration for my story, 'Bars', came from my incarceration in a federal penitentiary." Well, you get the idea.

Do NOT synopsize the story in your cover letter. The editor -- theoretically at least -- wants to read your story. As Weird Tales editor Darrell Schweitzer says, "Editors don't buy cover letters; they buy stories. Don't distract an editor by telling him how good your story is, or spoil the suspense by giving a synopsis."

If you haven't a single credit or unusual story-related experience, just be brief, formal, and supply the basics. The body can read something like this:

Dear [name of editor], Herewith my [so-many-thousand] word story, [title], for consideration in your magazine [title]. I've enclosed a letter-sized, stamped envelope for your response; the manuscript itself is disposable. Thank you very much for your consideration.

Ima Writer

If the submission is NOT disposable -- you want the ms. mailed back to you -- say so and include an adequately-sized, properly stamped envelope.

It's very important that you disclose any publication history. Even if the story was published in another language, on a different continent, or in a no-pay webzine -- state it.

If an editor has previously rejected your work, but made any sort of positive comment with the rejection, the body of your letter might read, in part: "Thank you for your encouraging remarks on my last submission, [rejected title]. Enclosed please find my story [new title]..." This will alert the slush reader or editor that enough was thought of your earlier submission that someone took the time to jot down something positive. Obviously you should use this tack only if the editor has previously written something encouraging.

I'm sure it is not necessary for me to tell you this, but in the spirit of being complete -- don't lie about your credentials. Not only is this unethical, but you will tend to get caught eventually. Editors read. They also talk to one another. They sometimes go from one publication to another. There are many ways little not-quite-white lies can backfire. The idea is to establish credibility, not destroy it.

What about email submissions? First off, NEVER submit via email unless an editor specifically requests it or it is clearly spelled out in the guidelines that s/he is amenable to e-subs. (And always follow those guidelines as to acceptable electronic format.) Then be logical -- unless requested as a separate document for filing purposes, keep the "cover letter" with the text of the story either in the body of the email or at the beginning of the attached file.

The purpose of a cover letter is really twofold. It politely explains to the editor that you are submitting the story thus demonstrating that you understand the proper etiquette involved in the buying and selling of stories as well as furthering an impression of your professionalism. And it provides the editor with a convenient piece of paper on which to scribble notes about the story and his/her reaction to it. When dealing with scores of manuscripts, a single page cover letter makes it easier for the editor to keep either acceptances or rejections straight.

I realize that sometimes it may be difficult to be motivated to make an editor's life easier -- but, remember, you are trying to be as professional as possible and to sell that story.

-- Paula Guran

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Copyright © 2002 by Paula Guran All Rights Reserved.