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!