Tips for Writing Cover Letters

Lit

Writing a cover letter for submission to literary magazines is a skill rarely taught in creative writing classes or workshops. That’s because teachers want their students to focus on the craft of writing, not on the lure of publishing. Writing and publishing are very different; one can be an artist without ever participating in the business side of art. At the beginner’s level, student work isn’t usually ready for publication anyway, and focusing on the art of writing should be the priority. But by the time writers are ready to send their work off to literary magazines, the cover letter still seems to be a mystery to many.

I won’t pretend to be the expert on this, but I have learned some things from professors, and from working on the staff of literary magazines. So, since Broad! has started accepting submissions for our next issue, here are some tips for putting your best foot forward with a cover letter:

1. Keep it brief. A cover letter for a magazine submission differs from a cover letter for a job application or a manuscript query letter for an agent, in that its purpose is entirely clerical. It goes with the manuscript to identify the genre and title of the submission and relevant information about your writing career. It should only be a few sentences long. For most magazines, your cover letter will include:

  • An introduction stating the genre and title of your submission.
  • A list of any relevant publications of creative work, writing awards, and/or fellowships or residencies.
  • If applicable: where you earned your MFA degree, where you teach writing, and/or editorial positions at magazines or journals.
  • A conclusion thanking the editors for their time.

2. Follow the magazine’s guidelines. Every magazine has a set of submission guidelines on their website, and you should follow these to the letter. If the editors want you to disclose in the cover letter that your submission is simultaneous, do so. If the editors want you to comment on stories that you read and liked in their previous issues, go ahead. Show them that you’re paying attention to their magazine. If the guidelines don’t say anything about the cover letter, use step one.

3. Be professional, not personal. I repeat, the cover letter is a clerical document. Resist the urge to tell the editors how you wrote your first book at five years old, and it was about your childhood dog, and your mom laminated it for you. It’s also not professional to include personal biographical information, like that you grew up in Connecticut but summer in Maine, or that you went to space camp when you were twelve. While potentially interesting, this is not information the editors need, and including it makes you look like an amateur. Stick to the information in steps one and two.

4. Cut out all of the padding. If you don’t have any publications, awards, or residencies yet, no problem. Broad! and many other literary magazines publish first-time authors all of the time. So you can send out cover letters that simply say “If accepted, this would be my first published story/essay/poem”. What you shouldn’t do is try to pad your cover letter with less relevant information, like where you got your Bachelor’s degree in Sociology or how you won an award for your writing in middle school. This makes you look like a student, and you want to look like a writer.* In addition, avoid mentioning other works-in-progress. If it hasn’t yet been published, accepted, or won an award, it doesn’t belong in your cover letter.

5. Let the work speak for itself. At one journal where I interned, we read the cover letters last, because we were much more interested in the work submitted than the author’s resumé. I suspect this is the M.O. at many other journals and magazines. Here at Broad!, we receive your cover letters in the emails, but I still try to hold off until after I’ve read the work. Which makes it irrelevant when a writer decides to summarize or analyze her work for the editors. The cover letter is not a query letter to an agent, in which an author tries to sell the manuscript to an agency by making the story sound exciting. Journal and magazine editors are going to read your submission because we read all submissions, and we are going to know if it’s a medieval romance or a set of poems with deep themes of death and longing. Your work should be strong enough that the plot and/or themes need no explanation. Editors also don’t need to know the story of where and how you received your inspiration for the work. Limit yourself to the information in steps one and two, and your professionalism will earn you respect from the editors of any magazine.

* One author told me that even revealing your status as an MFA student makes you look less professional. If you already graduated from an MFA program you might include that information, but leave out who you “studied under”, because it makes you seem pompous and has no bearing on your work. It’s also worth mentioning that while an MFA shows that you have dedicated significant time and energy to the craft of writing, writers without a Master’s degree have an equal chance of getting published, as do writers without a BA or BFA in English. In fact, I’m sorry, but your Bachelor’s degree is not important to mention in a cover letter to a literary magazine.

 

I hope this post provides some clarification to writers who have been confounded by the enigma of the cover letter. We welcome questions and comments below. And as always, we look forward to receiving prose, poetry, and artwork from our wonderful submitters at Broad! Happy writing!

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Link Round-up

Feminism, Lit, News, Politics

Everyday Feminism posted this useful guide to listening as a person of privilege and an ally to social justice stuggles. I thought it was a nice breakdown and I agree that to simply listen and learn is valuable and sometimes the most appropriate position one can take. I also found it refreshing that cis white male understood this so well and took the time to write about it.

At Autostraddle, Rose wrote about a recent author interview that, yet again, has sparked discussion of sexism in literature/publication. I find the comparison with the treatment of female writers to that of celebrities interesting. It almost seems as if the same essential double standard exists in everything from entertainment to politics.

Also at Autostraddle: trans* characters in Sci Fi novels and gender studies in high schools (I think this is so rad)!

Do you read The Militant Baker? If you’re interested in body image you probably should!

Did you do anything for Take Back the Night? My school had a really awesome rally!

This bookstore is really ridiculously gorgeous.

20 awesome literary tattoos. 

First Friday Link Round-up!

Feminism, Lit, Politics, T.R., Uncategorized

Greetings grrrls and welcome to the first ever Friday link round-up! This will be a regular feature where we share our interesting internet findings on literature, feminism, the intersection of those things, and also really important videos of cute animals and such.

We at Broad! believe that it’s important to discuss the tragedy in Steubenville, but we also realize that the constant commentary on the issue can be triggering or just plain exhausting for some people. If you are feeling this way, please, in the interest of self-care, don’t make yourself read the following articles.
That said, The America Prospect posted this interesting breakdown of rape culture, “toxic masculinity”, and where to go from here. Mia Mckenzie discussed the complex dynamics of the case at Black Girl Dangerous. At Autostraddle, Carmen Rios posted a very eloquent essay on Steubenville and rape culture; please take the time to sign her petition for the education of sports coaches on sexual assault issues.

Lit links: Flavorwire posted a list of female-focused  “outsider books” as well as one of ladies who should be writing for Harper’s.  Autostraddle ran a review of a new anthology about queer woman poetry collective Sister Spit (who are touring!) and interviewed editor Michelle Tea. The Rumpus reviewed Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of LeavesThat book is cray. Have you read it? We should talk about it.

Book art is a thing. Gorgeous!

This is a bit older, but Creative Nonfiction interviewed Cheryl Strayed and she is full of wisdom, as always. 

Poets read Craigslist posts. 

I am obsessed with mini pigs. 
Happy Friday!

Some things are afoot

Lit, News

Hey writers/readers!

Submissions for our Summer 2013 issue close TOMORROW AT MIDNIGHT, y’all.  You have until 11:59:59 on this dear Friday, March 1 to send us your fiction, creative essays, poems, artwork or photography to [broadzine@gmail.com].  After that, we’re closing our doors to submissions for two whole months, until May 1; we learned with the last sub round that it (almost immediately) grew difficult to read through and weigh the subs currently under consideration while collecting myriad subs for the next issue.  All four of us have day jobs; we don’t have the time, sadly, to keep rolling journal submissions the way we have in the past, not now that Broad! has grown so big.

That being said, we are instituting a monthly, themed readers’ column on this site.  If Broad! is a community, it’s one of everyone –– not just us editors yammering on.  We’d like to see your creative writing featured on the blog!  Send us fiction, CNF, or poetry under 500 words to broadzine@gmail.com within the timeline specified (usually a week) and it might end up featured here.  This month’s theme is “clean”; please send your piece to us under the email subject “Reader Column Submission” by the end of Friday, March 8, 2013.  The selected pieces will be put up on the website in the second half of the month.

Let’s say that fiction, personal essays, or poetry aren’t your thing, though.  Which is totally fine!  They’re not everyone’s thing.  But book reviews, somehow, seem to be read by everybody and anybody.  Do you ever find yourself drifting into a haze when thinking about a recent plot twist in the book you’re reading?  Did you love (or hate) such a book and now can’t stop daydreaming about the lead character?  If so, you should write us a book review.  Email us with the review and book details; your thoughts could end up on our front page slideshow!

Happy submitting, everyone!
Heather

Race and Reading: On NPR’s “100 Best YA Novels”

Lit

Recently, NPR Books compiled a list of the  “100 Best Young Adult Novels.”   Audience members were invited to nominate and then vote for the “best” examples of young adult literature. The response was overwhelming: NPR received nominations from 75,500 listeners. If this project is any indication, the general public is passionate and opinionated about young adult books. As a writer and an advocate of literacy, I find this heartening.

However, the list itself has discouraging implications. The audience selected only two books –– out of one hundred –– that feature protagonists of color. The NPR Ombudsman blog has already addressed the methodology of the poll and the role of its panelists; I think the list speaks less to the incompetence of NPR than to the invisibility of certain stories, and perhaps the inherent danger in declaring “bests.” Blame notwithstanding, touting the best books as ones almost exclusively about white people perpetuates white privilege and marginalizes a multitude of stories. And what about other facets of identity –– class, sexuality, gender –– that teens are coming to terms with? One thing that surprised me about discussion of the list is that it essentially stopped at race.

I believe that YA literature is crucial. It’s not just important that kids read books. It’s not just important that kids read good books. Kids need characters and stories that they can identify with –– books that reflect their own varied experiences and struggles. By extension, they need characters and stories that challenge them as well, provoke them to consider their place in the world and engage with narratives they might not encounter in their own lives.

Adolescence is a great time to read –– as a teenager, reading is fun and free of pretension. Books sustained me in middle and high school. They were an escape, certainly, and they were entertainment. But beyond that, they allowed me to conceive of the world beyond my tiny corner of it in a vivid and beautiful way (I grew up in a small, somewhat isolated and chronically rainy town in Alaska).

By reading voraciously, I was exposed to lives along myriad racial, cultural and socioeconomic lines outside my own experience. While this list features some excellent books, its heterogeneity confuses and saddens me. My broad inference is that overwhelmingly, teenagers are either deprived of stories about themselves or deprived of stories about the world. At a time when most of us are utterly absorbed in ourselves and yet at the same time developing a social consciousness, we benefit from stories of both.

The Male Privilege Plot: Jeffrey Eugenides Broke My Fragile Woman Heart

Essay, Lit, Politics

Jeffrey Eugenides is a wonderful writer.  I loved, and love, Middlesex.  But the recent interview he gave with Salon, specifically the bits about gender in the literary world, surprised and disappointed me.  It’s not his ignorance of the issue so much that bothers me; it’s his denial of it, the dismissive tone of his response, the unwillingness to engage in an analysis of his privilege beyond an offhand “You know, it’s possible.”  Yes, I know it’s possible.  VIDA knows it’s possible.  It’s more than possible.  How could the person who wrote Middlesex –– a novel about the permeability, and the cultural centralization of, sex and gender –– not believe in gender bias?

Eugenides argued that Zadie Smith is as well-respected and reviewed as Jonathan Franzen and the Great (White) Male Writers of his ilk.  I agree with him on that point… but that’s Zadie Smith.  One author.  Marie Curie discovered radium, but one wouldn’t look back on scientific history and claim that women were (or are) as respected or prominent in the field as male scientists.  I could list a handful more women writers held in high literary esteem (Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing, Alice Walker) but the list would run out far, far sooner than the list of male authors regarded in the same light.

There’s a difference between the work that Franzen produces and that which Jodi Picoult produces, he said.  I agree with him there, too.  Picoult produces beach reads; Franzen produces heavy tomes about”the way we live now” (as Time famously hailed Freedom).   Personally, I don’t enjoy either writer’s work, but there is a clear difference in their sentence, character, and plot construction.  Franzen wins reviews; Picoult wins the “average” consumer.  But Jodi Picoult, in the notorious tweet that launched Franzenfreude 2010, said nothing about Jodi Picoult.  Nor did she say anything about the type of book that Jodi Picoult writes (nor the audience that reads them: typically cast as middle-aged, middle-class, and female, invariably mothers, belonging to a book club full of other mothers).   Picoult was talking about the difference in general between the way men and women are received in the literary world. To misunderstand this as Picoult “bellyaching” about her own work’s designation of low culture versus Jonathan Franzen’s as high culture seems intentionally simplistic and irresponsible.  It shrinks and delegitimizes Picoult’s point by ignoring her point.

Men write about divorce and it’s hailed as The Way We Live Now.  Women write about divorce and it’s hailed as Women’s Fiction.  Because why would someone who isn’t a woman want to read about them?  “[I]t usually has nothing to do with their gender,” Eugenides said, “it’s just the marketplace.”  But that’s exactly my point.  The marketplace itself skews toward the historically most common reader demographic: white men.  Work by writers of color is often expected to concern itself with their race or ethnicity, and when it does, it’s often marginalized –– if not by way of bookstore organization (e.g. “African-American Literature”), by way of cover art (Sociological Images has a good breakdown on this regarding work by writers of Asian descent).  These stories are othered.  We want to highlight the work, the idea goes, but we don’t see it as normative and don’t anticipate the author to receive a widespread American audience.

There are always exceptions –– Jhumpa Lahiri, for one –– but in my experience as a consumer that seems to be the case.  We didn’t even read multicultural authors when I was in public school, now that I think about it.  We read Harper Lee to learn about racism in the American South and Pearl S. Buck to learn about China.  Of course, I can’t speak to everyone’s experience, only my own.

Women writers may not have a designated area of the bookstore, but their work is still discriminated against and marginalized in the way it is marketed.  (Let alone how often it is reviewed, or even published.)  Meg Wolitzer’s article in the New York Times, referenced by Eugenides in the interview, rings true and valid.  Perhaps he should read it again.

Three Women Who Turned Me On to Spoken-Word Poetry

Feminism, Lit

I’m a relative newcomer to the world of spoken word and slam poetry. Spending sleepless nights pouring over Neruda, it never really occurred to me that poetry, when performed out loud, could draw fervent crowds. Discovering the phenomenon of poetry slams was pretty exciting: this thing that I’d always loved in an obscure, solitary way was suddenly resonant to a whole roomful of people. I loved the immediacy of it, the way the reaction to a poem was made palpable. However, I think a lot of people have a misconception of spoken word that it’s something like the hilarious parody on the webseries Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl (look it up). While there is indeed performance poetry that bad, I think it’s really just as diverse as any other genre. Here are some of ladies whose voices I’m in love with.

Andrea Gibson

… The doctor who stitched me up asked me if I did it for attention.

For the record:

if you have ever done anything for attention

this poem is a tension.

Title it with your name.

It will scour the city bridge every night you spend kicking at your shadow, staring at the river,

it does not want to find your body doing anything but loving what it loves.

My first encounter with spoken word poetry was a prolonged Andrea Gibson youtube binge. My sister recommended her to me the winter of my freshman year of college, when I happened to be struggling with a severe bout of depression. I felt raw and messy, and Andrea was an antidote because she was raw and incisive — it was consoling that someone could be at once so vulnerable and so powerful, both emotive and lucid.

A writing instructor at a workshop I attended said that “to write about sadness is generous.” For me, Andrea Gibson embodies that generosity. That’s not to say she’s melancholic — she can just as easily be funny or wry or angry or ecstatic. But in a culture where “navel-gazing” or “oversharing” seem to be amongst the worst vices a writer — particularly a female writer — can commit, she is a testament to the power of candor, of emotional authenticity.

Stylistically, the most apt description I can come up with for Gibson’s poetry and performance is “effortless lyricism.” For all the nuances of her craft — wordplay, metaphor, her literal voice and inflection — there is always this sense of instinct, of ease. Andrea Gibson’s reality is one where the girls she loves float through her bloodstream and hang on her “monkey-bar” ribcage. She wants to give you glimpses of it.

Lenelle Moïse

… Some thirsty throats cope,

manage dirges in Cajun, in Zydeco

out-of-state kin can’t get through

refugees, refugees

remember ruined homes

a preacher remembers the book of revelations

still, saviors wait to save

and the living wade with the countless dead

while the wealthy president flies overhead, up where brown people look-

up where brown people look like spoiled jumbalaya, stewing from a distance in their down-there distress…

I’d seen her before. She had this warm, full, throaty voice and an electric physical presence. She managed to have full command of the audience’s attention and at the same time engage us naturally in her performance: using call and response, asking questions, and just maintaining an energy and intimacy that’s often inhibited by “the fourth wall.” I was struck by the way she wove her poems seamlessly into her speech — segues from story to story. She was poignant, radical, funny, down-to-earth, and thoroughly innovative onstage. The evening left me with completely new (and frankly more positive) connotations for the term “performance art.” The piece was also, very genuinely, a catalyst for political thought and discussion, though Lenelle never hits you over the head with an an agenda.

A playwright and actress as well as a poet, Moïse merges genres, working vocal jazz, movement, and storytelling techniques into her poetry performance. She writes about growing up Haitian-American, bullies, first crushes, sexuality, hate crime, Hurricane Katrina, gender, language, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. She’s fierce as fuck, and you should hear what she has to say.

Rachel McKibbens

Go with the one who loves you biblically.

The one whose love lifts its head to you despite its broken neck.

Whose body bursts sixteen arms electric to carry you,

gentle, the way

old grief is gentle. Love the love that is messy in all its too much,

the body that rides best your body, whose mouth saddles

the naked salt of your far gone hips,

whose tongue translates the rock

language of

all your elegant scars.

Go with the one who cries out for his tragic sisters as he

chops the winter’s wood, the one whose skin

triggers your heart into a heaven of blood waltzes.

I came across Rachel McKibbens back in April, while participating in the National Poetry Month poem-a-day challenge — she was posting enormously helpful prompts on her blog for every day of the month. The “ex-punk rock chola” has serious spoken word credentials: she was 2009 Women of the World Slam champion, an eight-time National Poetry Slam team member, and a three time NPS finalist. McKibbens is a versatile poet; her dark, spare, and brutally beautiful work is as visceral on the page as it is at the mic, delivered in her distinct, ragged voice. I think that her insights on both “page poetry” and slam poetry are telling. Of spoken word, she says, “[I]t certainly taught me a lot about cadence, rhythm and sound. I’ve been a syllable counter since the day I understood words. Sonics are extremely important to me. And timing. I don’t think you can really learn these things in their entirety unless it’s on a microphone. Reading it aloud to yourself in your home is not the same as knowing how to honor your poem by reading it to an audience properly. Many page poets don’t read their poems correctly. I’ve heard brilliant pieces of writing fall flat because the reader didn’t learn the poem’s voice.” However, she also notes, “I have never played to win… I have only ever played to change the game,” and insists “in slams, I approach a poem exactly as I do at readings. I stand at the mic, and I read my poem. That’s it.”

Rachel McKibbens is acclaimed in both spoken word and “book poet” circles because in her work, the muscle of the language is apparent regardless of what form it takes. While it makes sense to sometimes assess performed and written poetry differently, I think that it’s important to remember that cliques not withstanding, it’s all poetry. I am interested in poetry, period, and at the end of the day I don’t care whether it’s written or spoken just as long as splits my head open.

Hannah named a Best New Poet!

Lit, News

Our own Hannah Baker-Siroty, printed in the Summer 2012 issue of Broad! (readable/downloadable here or here) and now associate editor, has been chosen for this year’s edition of Best New Poets!  Her poem “Beekeeper Outside Escanaba, Michigan” will be published in November.  For the 2012 edition of the annual anthology, poet Matthew Dickman presided as editor.

Basically, Hannah is a brilliant writer and lovely person to boot, so I suggest you check out her work.  (And Matthew Dickman’s, for that matter!  His poem “Slow Dance” felt delicately beautiful enough that I wrote it out and posted it on my wall last year.  And obviously, he has good taste.)

Congratulations, Hannah!