Please and Thank You: The Purpose of a Cover Letter

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Recently, Toasted Cheese received a submission in which the writer asked in her cover letter whether such a letter was really necessary. After all, she reasoned, shouldn’t the work speak for itself? Indeed it should. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t include a cover letter with your submission. Here’s why.

The purpose of a cover letter isn’t to sell your story. It’s not a query, i.e. “May I please send you my work?” A cover letter is a letter included with a submission. Since you’ve already sent your work, the editors don’t need a synopsis or a pitch. They have your work. They’ll read it. You also don’t need to bombard the editors with pages of credits, credentials, and accolades (though, of course, a few are fine). Again, they already have your work. It’ll either stand up on its own merits or it won’t.

A cover letter is, first and foremost, a friendly way to introduce your submission. It’s like saying please and thank you rather than making a demand. Editors read many submissions at a time, and frankly, it’s just more pleasant to open one with a brief introductory note than one with the work and nothing else. It’s not so much what you say. It’s that you said something.

Background Image: Ben Rimes/Flickr.

Background Image: Ben Rimes/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa).

No, a cover letter won’t convince editors to select your work if it’s not what they’re looking for. But a concise, courteous letter will put the persons reading your work in the best possible frame of mind to read it. It may even make them more inclined to encourage you to submit again. And, after all, short of the coveted acceptance letter, that’s what you want.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some real cover letters Toasted Cheese has received in the past year to see what they got right—and wrong. We’ll start with the letter that inspired this article:

To Whom It May Concern:1

This isn’t the first time I’ve submitted to Toasted Cheese. This is, however, the first time that I’ve included more than just my work in the submission email. I never bothered2 with a cover letter before because I felt that it was unnecessary. I thought that if you (the editors of Toasted Cheese) liked my work, then you would accept it and publish it without needing to know anything more of me. In other words, I wanted my work to speak for itself.3 Please let me know if I have been mistaken.

If you do want to know more about me, then please read on. I am, perhaps like many of your contributors, a writer in my spare time only. I do wish that I could claim writing as my profession; only the reality of my abilities has hindered me, but I believe that practice makes perfect. And perhaps by the time I retire I would have mastered my craft.4

What follows are two poems inspired by a couple of Toasted Cheese writing prompts. The first is an interpretation of _____, and the second is on the theme _____.5

Sincerely,
Name6
A Would-be Writer7

P.S. Please let me know if a cover letter is required for all subsequent submissions.8

Here are my thoughts on this letter:

  1. “To Whom It May Concern” implies the writer doesn’t know whom she is addressing. It seems out of place here because (as shown in the first paragraph) she does indeed know. “Dear Editors of Toasted Cheese” would have been a better greeting.
  2. Using a phrase like “I never bothered” is a red flag. If you can’t be “bothered” to write a couple lines introducing yourself and your work and thanking the editors for their time, why should they be “bothered” to read your work?
  3. As noted above, a cover letter isn’t a pitch; it’s a courtesy.
  4. A little self-deprecating humor is fine, but don’t over-do. This essentially says, “my writing isn’t ready for publication yet.” If that’s the case, why are you submitting it? If it’s not the case, say something more positive about yourself/your work. Most creative writers have day jobs that pay the bills. What’s important is that you’re a doer rather than a dreamer.
  5. This brief introduction to the submitted pieces is more than sufficient. One tweak: including the title(s) of the piece(s) you’ve submitted in your cover letter is always appreciated.
  6. This is perfect.
  7. This is not. If there’s an outright don’t for cover letters, this would be it. If you can’t take yourself seriously, why should we?
  8. This is a valid question and I’m glad the writer asked it, but I’d have preferred to see it asked at our forums or on Twitter. By asking at the end of her letter, the writer has reminded the editors what a “bother” it was for her to write it, thus distracting them from her submission.

Here’s an example of a short cover letter that leaves the editors with a favorable impression of the writer:

Editorial Staff
Toasted Cheese
Date

Dear Editors:1

Pasted below is a short story titled _____. It is approximately _____ words in length.2 In the past few years I have published freelance articles in magazines relating to _____ and have an essay entitled “_____” to be published in the book ____ in spring or fall of 20__. I have not yet published a work of fiction.3 I would appreciate your time and consideration of this manuscript for publication.4

Best,
First M. Last

  1. As far as TC is concerned, this opening is ideal. Since we have several editors, a joint greeting such as “Dear Editors” is appropriate. For a publication with a single editor or one that has divided responsibilities (e.g. fiction editor, poetry editor), it would be better to use the editor’s name.
  2. This writer begins by telling us two things we want to know: the submission’s title and word count. By adding that the story is pasted in the email (the format we request), she indicates that she has read our submission guidelines.
  3. Including a few details about your writing credits, relevant degrees, or writing-related work or volunteer experience is one way to show editors that you’re serious about writing.
  4. Letting the editors know you appreciate the time they’re taking to read your work is arguably the most important part of your cover letter.

This is a good letter that hits all the major points. Two suggestions:

  • Toasted Cheese publishes a short bio with each piece, so it’s helpful if writers include a paragraph that is easily convertible into a bio, or a separate third-person bio that can be used as-is.
  • Make sure there is no ambiguity with respect to your byline by clearly stating how you would like your name to appear if your work is published.

Here’s another letter that does both those things:

Dear Flash Fiction Editor:1

Toasted Cheese first came to my attention through the Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market; after more research I determined that some of my writing might be a good fit for your publication.2 I am submitting a ____-word flash fiction story entitled “_____.”3 If accepted this would be my first published work.4

Brief Biography:
First Middle Last is a writer and _____ living in _____. She watches films and writes poetry, fiction and screenplays. She is happily married and learning about parenting through experience.5

Thank you for taking the time to consider my writing and I look forward to hearing from you.6

Sincerely,
First Middle Last7
Email
Phone Number8

  1. This isn’t a perfect opening for TC; we edit as a collective and as such we don’t have a “flash fiction editor” per se.
  2. Letting the editors know you’re familiar with their publication and/or have done your research is never a bad idea.
  3. Like the letter above, this writer clearly states the submission’s word count and title.
  4. If you’d like to share that you’re unpublished or haven’t published before in the genre you’re submitting, this is a good way to do it—it comes off as optimistic. Don’t be an Eeyore by bemoaning that you’ve never been published (or “only” been published in a venue you clearly don’t value) .
  5. This format is nice because it leaves no ambiguity as to a) what information you want included in your published bio, and b) how you would like your name to appear.
  6. A thank you is always appreciated.
  7. This writer is consistent with the version of her name used in the letter, which we appreciate. When your name appears several different ways in your letter—e.g. Elizabeth Smith, Lizzie Smith, E. Zillah Smith—it can be unclear which version you want to be published under (or even be addressed as).
  8. By including her contact information, the writer appears confident and professional. One tip: writers often include their email, phone number, and/or mailing address. Not so often included, but perhaps more relevant to an online publication: a link to your website/blog and/or the social networking site you’re most active at. We are happy to include a link in your published bio, so please include this information.

Keep in mind these are just examples; there are of course countless other ways you could include the pertinent information in your letter. When in doubt, err on the side of brevity. Here is a very short letter that is perfectly acceptable:

Dear Editor,

Here are my bio and short story, ______ (approximately _____ words). Thank you for considering my work.

Sincerely,
First Middle Last

First Middle Last is a writer and _____living in ______. Most recently, she has been published in _____, the literary journal of ______ University. You can read more of her work at firstmiddlelast.com.

As I hope these examples have shown, your letter needn’t be flawless to fulfill its purpose. Writing a cover letter shouldn’t be an onerous task. Save the multiple drafts for your creative work; a utilitarian cover letter works just as well as a clever one. And once you’ve written a letter you like, you can use it as a template for future submissions.

To summarize, in a cover letter you want to:

  • Greet the person(s) you’re writing to.
  • Introduce the work you are submitting.
  • Tell the editors a little about yourself.
  • Thank the editors for reading your work.
  • Close the letter with your name and contact information.

A few tips:

  • Rejection and re-submitting is part of being a writer. By all means, keep sending out your work until it finds a home. But please, freshen up your submission before submitting to a new publication! No editor wants to be able to count how many times your email has been forwarded.
  • Avoid generic openings. If there is a single editor, use the editor’s name. If there are multiple editors as at Toasted Cheese, you can address your letter to the editors as group (e.g. Dear Editors; Dear Toasted Cheese Editors). Alternatively, if you have a rationale for doing so, you can address it to one of the editors. For example, if you particularly like my Editor’s Picks, you could address your letter to me. This would signal to us that you’ve gone above and beyond in researching the journal and its editors.
  • Make sure to “sign” your letter. A good rule of thumb with email is to start formal. First contact should always include a greeting and closing/signature. You can drop the formalities as the conversation progresses.
  • Save the area below your signature for your contact information. Other personal information can be included in your bio, if you wish. “Jane E. Jones is a 38-year-old arctic researcher who lives with her husband and children in Iqaluit, Nunavut” sounds personable, whereas the same information in a list after your signature comes off a bit psychotic.
  • Before sending, read the submission guidelines one more time to ensure that nothing in your letter conflicts with them. In particular, make sure a publication accepts simultaneous submissions before sending a piece to more than one journal.

Ideally, the person reading your cover letter should come away with the impression that you’re polite, professional, and would be easy to work with. Do we toss submissions without cover letters? No, of course not. They’re a nicety, not a necessity. But the goodwill you generate by including one makes the few minutes it takes to write one more than worthwhile.

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