How to Write a Cover Letter

If you’ve already submitted to literary journals online, you may have had to write a cover letter to send in with your work. If you haven’t, have no fear! They’re not nearly as daunting as they sound.

Consider the following example:

 

Dear Karen,

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live underwater? Wonder no longer — all of your questions will be answered after you read my flash fiction piece entitled “Richard Becomes a Salmon.” The story follows a boy who tries to figuratively swim upstream in his suburban high school, but then becomes an actual salmon. The inspiration came to me one morning after an action-packed dream in which I, as a salmon, revisited my high school days. I think your readers will all be able to relate to this story, especially those who have been to high school, and those who are salmon.

Speaking of high school, I attended Gius Academy for two years before transferring to Coberly College Prep for my junior year. My favorite class is biology — I have an A- in it right now. I have two sisters and a cat named Harold. In my free time, I bake lasagna and collect rocks.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Parker Brandt

 

There’s a lot wrong with this letter. First off, don’t refer to the editor by their first name! Entering the publishing world as a young person means that you have to earn respect, which you can do by showing respect to other people. If you are somehow able to find an editor’s name online, use the whole thing. Still, a lot of magazines rotate their editing staff pretty frequently, so there’s no way of knowing whether you’re talking to Karen or someone else. I like to stick to “Dear Editors.”

On to the first paragraph. There’s no need to start with a question like this because you don’t need to hook your reader. If you keep the letter short, the editor who reads it shouldn’t need to be hooked in the first place! Additionally, your submission should speak for itself. Don’t summarize, don’t get personal, and don’t sell your work. A strong piece of writing will sell itself; your doing so in the cover letter makes it seem like you don’t believe your writing is strong enough on its own.

The next paragraph is fine in theory — it’s never a bad idea to include a bio if the magazine doesn’t ask for one separately. But if you do include personal details, stick to writing experience. One sentence about your school, state, or any other general background is fine. Then mention any journals that have published your work in the past, as well as any awards and honors you may have received. If none of that applies to you, skip to the end.

Parker did a great job at one thing: thanking the editors. That said, there’s even room for improvement here. He hasn’t named the journal in the email yet! If you use the same template for every cover letter — no shame, I do this! — it’s always good to use the name of the journal somewhere so that the letter feels more personal. Just make sure you don’t accidentally send an email with the wrong journal name in it!

The key to writing an effective cover letter is to write as little as possible. Get in, be clear, and get out. After all, you’re not trying to get your cover letter published! Your submission should still be the star of the show.

Here’s a better version of Parker’s cover letter:

 

Dear Editors,

Thank you for considering my flash fiction piece “Richard Becomes a Salmon” for Awesome Literary Magazine. I’m a junior in high school at Coberly College Preparatory School. My work has appeared in Writers “R” Us, and I’ve earned two silver stars from Teen Poetry Awards.

I enjoy reading Awesome Literary Magazine, and I hope you find my story to be a good fit. Thanks again, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Parker Brandt

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