The Neglected Art of the Cover-Letter

A few weeks ago, Brett Evans (the editor of Prole Magazine) made the following post on Facebook:

Are there any fellow editors out there who find submissions without so much as a hello rude? No cover letter or bio I can forgive but no hello! I know the work should speak for itself but if you’re a writer then ‘Hello’, ‘Dear miserable editor’ is not going to stretch your talents.

As the co-editor of Black Sheep Journal (along with the vibrant and highly talented poet Mab Jones) I’ve noticed that most of the poets who submit their work to us do indeed know how to say ‘hello’. Even so, a great many of them don’t seem to know how to write an effective cover letter. I have long thought that beginning writer’s workshops would find it helpful to leave off grinding the individuality from poems long enough to focus on the art of writing a viable cover-letter. This is an important part of the submissions process, after all. It’s your first foot in the door and while your work should indeed speak for itself, every speaker, no matter how grand, benefits from a good introduction. Since you value your work (and you want your readers to value it) you should want to make your introduction as effective as possible.

In the spirit of helping you do this, I am going to give a compressed version of the talk that I give to my students, starting with a list of dont’s:

1) Don’t send submissions as a mass email to many publishers at once. Try to think about what this is like for the recipient. Editors are real people, after all, with real thoughts and emotions. If we open an email and see a list a yard long of the other magazines that you’ve submitted to we are going to know that, besides being rude, you don’t really care about appearing in our magazine, and we will probably delete your letter unread.

2) Don’t ignore our submission requirements. If you care enough about your poems (or short stories, or flash fiction) to want to be included in our magazine you must be willing to read the fine print. Do not assume that every publisher’s submission requirements are the same. You’ll be surprised at how many publishers throw something odd into the mix to see if writers are paying attention.

3) If you are unlucky enough to get a rejection, do not write back to lecture the editors on their mistake — at least not if you ever plan on submitting to us again. Yes, the work is the primary concern, but no one responds well to being called an idiot for failing to appreciate your specific genius. Rejections come for many reasons. Sometimes the work itself is very good, but it doesn’t fit with the theme of the publication. This has happened more than once with us at Black Sheep. We’ve had to say no to good work because it doesn’t fit the ‘outsiders’ theme. Chances are, if an editor says something in your rejection letter along the lines of ‘this rejection may have nothing to do with the quality of the piece’ they mean it. Editors don’t tend to have a lot of time on their hands, so we are unlikely to mess around with unearned praise.

4) Don’t forget to greet the editor(s). If you pay attention to the publication (I.e. if you actually read it) you will probably be able to discover who the editors are. If so, address them politely and personally. ‘Dear Mab and Bethany’, ‘Dear Mr Evans’, ‘Dear Ms Jones and Dr Pope’. Courtesy is a two-way street.

OK, so those are the don’ts. Now for the do’s. Let’s write a draft of an effective cover-letter. You’ve already familiarized yourself with the magazine. You like this publication and the things they publish, and you think you have some poems that are appropriate to the theme. You’ve read the submission requirements. You know who the editors are, who to address, and how to address them. What next? Below, you’ll find a workable template, very much like the one that I use. Remember that effective submissions should be customized for the individual publications for whom they are intended. This requires more work than you might prefer, but you are a writer! You know how important words are! You are not afraid of work.

Dear Specific Name(s),

I am writing to submit ‘poemone’, ‘poemtwo’, and ‘poemthree’ for your consideration. I notice that you publish a lot of formal, male-on-male seahorse erotica poems and so I thought that you might enjoy these sestinas of mine. You seem to publish poems with a lot of fin-nibbling in them, so you’ll be happy to know that ‘poemone’ and ‘poemtwo’ focus on that theme. You said in the submission requirements that you prefer poets who mention the word ‘bandicoot’ somewhere in their submission, so I’ve done that, too.

You asked for a biography, so here’s mine:

Ariel Frogbottom was born in Mudwiggum, England. She earned her PhD in Creative Writing from Pretentious Tech. Ariel has won the following prizes: The Frogspawn Poetry Prize, The Briderut Poetry Prize, and she took first place in The Great Haiku Howl-Off of 2014. She has published three books: Seahorse Erotica and You (Naughty-Girl Press, 2014), The Drowning of the Author (Deadwhitemen Press, 2013), and A Portrait of the Artist as a Minnow (Itsbeendone Press, 2012). Her work has appeared in the following publications: Giant Pouch Monthly, Monkeybutt Magazine, and Bellowing Banshee.

My poems are attached (or embedded — follow the submission requirements)

All the best,

Ariel Frogbottom

There you go, fellow-writers. I hope that you find this helpful.


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