Since this week we’re discussing lit mags and journals in my 405 class (Literary Citizenship), and since I co-edit a small online magazine, I thought I would contribute to the topic of cover letters. Below are four things (in no particular order) I think one should keep in mind when writing a cover letter for a magazine or journal.
1) Know who you’re submitting to.
For starters, make sure you pick the right journal. Find a magazine that fits your style, and that you can imagine your piece published in. If you don’t think there is one, keep looking. I promise that there’s a magazine for every style.
Once you find the right place to publish, make sure you address the correct editors. Few things are as initially off-putting as having the cover letter addressed to a previous editor, or someone at a different magazine entirely. If you can’t find the editors, keep it polite, and say something like, “Editors at [insert magazine name here].”
2) Keep it short and simple.
It’s better to have a cover letter that’s too short, than one that’s too long. I had a professor once that emphasized that in a cover letter, “don’t seem crazy.”
Remember that editors read lots of submissions everyday, and they just don’t have time to read a long, complex letter. Give them just enough to get a sense of who you are, but don’t overload them with unnecessary information.
3) How do you keep it simple? Cut, don’t trim, off the fat.
Editors don’t need to know when you started writing, or your philosophical views of writing. They don’t need a plot synopsis or interpretation (it’s their job to read it and form an opinion, so let them). And they definitely don’t need to know what famous writer you’re most like (if you really were, why are you not already famous).
They also don’t need a long, detailed list of your publications. If you’ve been published somewhere like The New Yorker or Creative Nonfiction, then yes, put them on there. Otherwise, keep your list around 3-5 publications. Previous publications are important, but ultimately the piece you submitted is what’s being judged.
4) Ultimately, it’s a first date, so “flirt,” be casual, and be clever.
Think of submitting like a first date. The editors have only “met” you by seeing your name at the top of the submission, like an initial handshake. The cover letter is your chance to convince them to take you on a second date.
So, don’t dominate the conversation by being long-winded or boring. Instead, be funny and simple. Give them a sense of who you are, but leave enough room for them to form their own opinions.