While I will go on to say what makes the most effective cover letter, it is important to remember that your short story will speak for itself. The ‘greatness’ of a cover letter may slightly colour the editor’s preconceptions and help to either add or detract from how memorable your writing is, but shouldn’t have any bearing on the acceptance or rejection of the piece (and, if it does, it is a reflection on the editor of the publication you are submitting to rather than any reflection on you).
Why even have a cover letter, then? Well, it is a good chance to give the publication key information about you, should you be accepted. It is also important to show that you know about them and have judged that your writing is a good fit: This will put them in an all-important positive frame of mind from the very start of reading your work, and may well make you more memorable.
We have compiled a Do and Don’t list for you to consider. However, we have kept this list short and sweet because spending time on your actual writing is more important. That said, from the Don’t list it is clear that there are a lot of cover letters that make writers appear pretentious: the biggest pitfall we can see.
- Include why you are writing to that particular publication. This will tell the editor immediately why you are submitting to them. It shows you have done your research and aren’t just submitting a blanket round – so it is worth their while reading your story. As we said in Know What an Editor Wants Without Stalking Them, this is not about writing specifically for a magazine, but knowing that your work is well suited.
- Keep it short: at Firewords we ask for a full bio once we have made the decision to publish, so at this stage you don’t have to write much at all. Your chance will come on publication.
- Feel free to include a snippet of information that is funny or interesting about you. If it is something that really jumps off the page, even if it is not unique to you but is just written about in an interesting way, then an editor is more likely to remember you. If you are in a race to be published against a few other writers then it may make you stand out. They should always base their judgements on the writing within the story, not the cover letter, but you will already have grabbed their attention which can only be a good thing.
- Labour your past publication credits. We receive many cover letters that list all the places that a writer has been published and we rarely read them as they are too common, don’t tell us about the quality of writing in the piece being submitted, and can make the writer look pretentious.
- Give your life story. The interesting snippet of information described above should be just that – a snippet. Think of an editor skimming many cover letters. These cover letters are not the pieces of writing that will appear in the magazine so are not the main focus of the editor’s attention. Too much detail can appear at best boring and at worst pretentious.
- Write in the third person. You may choose to write in the third person in your biography if you get published. However, the cover letter is different. This is between you and the editor. The third person makes us feel detached from the writer whereas, at this stage, we want to get to know them on real terms and feel an affiliation with them.
- Elaborate on or explain your story. The piece of writing should stand on its own without any extra information. If you feel the need to explain something to the editor, perhaps the piece isn’t quite ready for publication.
To sum up, cover letters are not that important and some publications even do blind reading (where the submitter info is never even read), so don't sweat it and concentrate your efforts elsewhere.