Today we will be covering the basics of cover letters. What they are, how to write one, and a few basic tips and tricks just to get you started.
Cover Letter Basics:
Regardless of where you're at in your publishing journey, you've probably heard the term cover letter thrown around. Cover letters are an introduction to yourself or your work that you write to someone you are sending that work to, not unlike the cover letters you'd include to a potential employer with your resume.
Colloquially, it will often just refer to the body of your submission email when you're sending work to a potential publisher.
Why Cover Letters Are Important:
Unless you're sending work to someone you know personally or have worked with before, a cover letter is likely to be your introduction to the editor. It's important to present yourself and your work in a way that's friendly but professional, because whether we like it or not, first impressions do matter.
I have found that a good cover letter can often make a huge difference in my submission process. While it doesn't directly impact my acceptance rate (at least as far as I'm aware) I have discovered I'm more likely to get personalized rejections or invitations to submit again later down the road when an editor feels comfortable reaching out to me about the piece I've sent them.
A lot of writers find the cover letters to be daunting (or tedious, to those who submit regularly) but they're probably the part of the process I feel most confident in by this point in my career.
When to Include a Cover Letter:
A good rule of thumb is just to include a cover letter whenever you're submitting anything as a writer. I always include one with my submissions unless a press specifically tells me not to. Even if a press says "don't stress over the cover letter" I include some basic information just to set the right expectation for what I'm sending in.
What to Put in Your Cover Letter:
A personalized greeting
An introduction to you
An introduction to your work
A friendly sign off
Any answers to any questions that were asked in the submission guidelines.
We're going to start with that last one, because it's the most important. Always, always, always read the submission guidelines before submitting your work somewhere. This seems like it should be obvious but you'd be surprised how many writers get excited and skip this step.
You want to make sure that your work is a good fit for the project, but also that the project is a good fit for you. Reading guidelines closely can help make you aware of any red flags or potential problems you may encounter. They'll also give you tips on how best to sell your story.
If you're sending work into a "cosmic horror anthology" and you have a Lovecraftian story to shop around, it may be tempting to just feel like it's a fit and move full steam ahead. But what if that market is looking for stories specifically outside of the Lovecraft mythos? Then you'd just be wasting your time (and their time) sending it in. On the other side of that coin, they could be looking specifically for queer, genderbent Lovecraft retellings. That's really specific. If that's the story you have, that's the sort of thing to bring up in your cover letter so that the editors know going into the piece you have exactly what they're looking for, and you're feeling good about it.
Sometimes guidelines will also ask you to include specific information or answer specific questions in your cover letter. Following those instructions are going to let the press know that you're paying attention and serious about working with them.
The other things we suggest you include all boil down to the same basic principle; be courteous. If you get accepted, the person reading this email is someone you're going to be working with. Even if the submission is a rejection, they're still going to put time and effort into evaluating your piece, and besides, they're a person just the same as you are. We should all try to respect all the people in this amazing field with us.
So greet them (with their name and preferred honorifics if that's included in the guidelines or easily found on their website), introduce yourself, your piece, and sign off in a friendly way. I also like to thank editors for their time, especially if my cover letter has run long, which sometimes it does.
What NOT to Put in Your Cover Letter:
Overly personal information
Anything the press asked you not to send
There is no exact math for how long a cover letter should be exactly, but it's better to keep it concise if you're unsure. The editors are going to have a lot of these to read, most likely.
While it's good to introduce yourself and your piece, you don't need to write a whole second piece about how you wrote whatever you're submitting. A publisher doesn't need your entire history, or any information that's too personal. Even if a contract requires information like your legal name and address, there's really no reason why you should be asked to fill that out with your submission, and there's definitely no reason to put it in the cover letter.
Like in the last section, it's also good to remember that it's a person on the other side of the screen reading this. Don't be rude. Presses are less likely to want to work with someone who is sexist, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, etc.
Use common sense.
Below is a general template for how I would break down a generic cover letter that I was writing.
[Short Introductory paragraph explaining who I am, how I found the site/anthology/submission call, etc. Why submitting is important to me.]
[Elaborate on myself, my writing, my publication history if relevant.]
[Introduce the piece. Mention title, word count, and a personalized note about the story or theme. Work in if it's a simultaneous submission, reprint, etc.]
[Optional paragraph to address any specific questions from the guidelines]
Below is an example cover letter that I would write for a fictional anthology call from The Sinister Scoop Founder, Tasha Reynolds.
Dear Ms. Reynolds,
My name is Cat Voleur, and I first found your anthology call through The Sinister Scoop Open Submissions page. Your mission statement of supporting independent horror creators really spoke to me.
I've been a writer for the last ten years. I started in horror journalism but have pivoted to speculative fiction over the last year. You can find some of my short fiction featured in OOZE: LITTLE BURSTS OF BODY HORROR, THAT OLD HOUSE: THE BATHROOM, and OCTOBER SCREAMS. My debut book, REVENGE ARC, was released this past August through Archive of the Odd.
Attached for your consideration is my article, entitled Writing 101: Cover Letters. It's around 1,300 words and previously unpublished as it was written with this venue in mind. It's based off of my own experience submitting fiction and writing countless cover letters for my own work.
Thank you so much for your time and consideration with the piece.
Like with every single part of the writing industry, cover letters get easier with practice. If they're something you struggle with, know that probably won't be the case forever. They get less daunting, and if you're submitting work regularly, they're going to become like second nature before you know it.
If you have any questions about cover letters, be sure to comment down below so we know to do a 102 article that goes a little deeper in depth.