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Cover Letters: A brief primer

Some of you may know that I edit prose for the Tahoma Literary Review. This submission period we had a little over a thousand submissions; by the time I’m done, I will have read somewhere between 350 and 400 pieces of fiction and given feedback on a little over half of those. (We have awesome fiction readers at TLR to help with the remainder of the workload, and poetry makes up a massive chunk of those thousand submissions.)

Over the past few weeks, we’ve had some commentary and questions on what makes a good cover letter for a literary submission, so I thought I’d address that.

coverletter

First, some notes:

My policy with cover letters is so: I try to only read them after I’ve done with the submission. There are a lot of reasons for this, unconscious bias being chief among them, but because our submission engine defaults to showing me the cover letter when I open the submission, I usually will get a glance at them despite my best intentions before I get to the short story or essay itself.

Literary-magazine cover letters are different from the query letters you would write to a consumer magazine in that your piece for a literary magazine is already complete. But in some ways they are the same.

This advice is unique to this editor and to prose, but I’ll wager it covers a lot of things folks like to see in cover letters in general.

The no nos are easy: Don’t “Dear editor” me. Don’t say something like “most people think I’m drunk or on cocaine when they read my work.” And for God’s sake, do not say your writing is “picaresque,” or that it “redefines literature.” (I don’t know. This last one might be  a personal thing. *twitches.*) These are all things that have appeared in this reading period, by the way.

With that said, here are the YES, DO THISes of cover letters:

Please customize your letter. The person reading your submission is a person. With a name.

Please give me something that tells me you have actually read my magazine and/or know something of what we like to publish.*

*This is a gimme. Our editors are all online, as are our readers, and the magazine’s digital footprint is considerable.

You don’t have to tell me about your story or essay, but in nonfiction it can be especially helpful. In fiction I find people have a terrible time summing up their own work.

Please tell me a little bit about yourself. This is not a bio in third person. This is one or two lines about your most recent publications, maybe.

With all of that said, here’s what my standard cover letter for a literary submission looks like:

Dear XXXXX,

Thank you for taking the time to read my submission. I admire X publication’s [insert unique feature here]

OR

We met [XX HERE] and I was happy to hear that you [UNIQUE THING ABOUT THIS EDITOR YOU LIKE OR WHATEVER HERE.]

I’m a prose editor for the Tahoma Literary Review, and my fiction is most recently published [XXX here]. My nonfiction can be found [XX].

Thank you very much. I look forward to hearing back from you.

All best,

Yi Shun Lai

Generally, it follows very basic rules:

  • Be concise.
  • Be polite and human. Remember you’re writing to a person, not a ‘bot. I’m not a fan of the one-line “cover letters” for this reason: it looks like I’m screening for data points rather than reading for a good essay or story.
  • Please don’t aggrandize your own work or style. That’s what I’m here for, should you publish with me, and your work should speak for itself, anyway.
  • Remember that your job is to do honor* to the work you are presenting to me. So you shouldn’t, as a friend described it to me recently, feel icky or gross about it. Look at it as giving your work due credit. Start there and you won’t feel icky–doing honor to something is not the same as, um, pimping it.

Okay? In the end, I think it comes down to this: Where are you writing this letter from? Are you writing it from a position that says you want to put something new into this world of reading? Yes? Then put that foot forward.

Okay. Now. Go forth and write. TLR opens to submission again 1 January 2018. Until then, ask me any questions below.

*I stole this from Alex Maslansky, bookseller at Stories Books and Café in LA. I have used it a bajillion times and I’ll keep on using it. It makes sense.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.