Cover letters. Some markets require them, some ask that you include specific information, some don’t want to see them at all.
At Shimmer Magazine, we like ’em. They’re a nice little wave from the author. “Hi, here’s a story. Thanks!”
A bad cover letter isn’t the end of the world, but when I open new slush for Shimmer, a lack of cover letter (or a cutesy one) makes me go, “Uh oh, better strap myself in for this story.”
Sometimes I’m wrong, it turns out to be a great story anyway, but usually not. Sure, a good cover letter doesn’t make your story any better and a bad one doesn’t make it worse, but don’t you want us to go into your story feeling confidence in you? A professional cover letter means you take your writing seriously — think about the impression you want to send.
So, for your perusal, I offer my very biased take on cover letters. Your mileage may vary. (Though I will say that these tips are probably useful when you’re sending a letter to Shimmer.)
First off, read the guidelines …
Lemme say that again. READ THE GUIDELINES.
Each market asks for specific information and formatting and it’s a red flag when you don’t follow the rules. You don’t want a mark against you before we even get to your story.
That said, here’s what I think is a generic, basic, bare minimum cover letter:
Please consider my 1000 word short story, “Monkeys Really Are That Awesome,” for publication in Shimmer Magazine. My story is attached in RTF format.
Thank you for your consideration,
Boom! That’s it. You’ve told me you’ve sent a story. I have the name and wordcount and I get to feel like you care that a human being is about to read your story. Most importantly, I don’t have that “uh oh” feeling.
There are many different variations of this letter and some reasonable things to add. For example, personally I send:
Beth Wodzinski, Editor <------ Look this up on ralan.com or most markets have staff pages.
PO Box 58591
Salt Lake City, UT
Dear Beth, <------ Some people use the full name, I think it's ok to just use the first name.
Please consider this original 3100 word fantasy short, “Monkeys Will Buy Your Brain For One Million Dollars,” for publication in Shimmer, attached in RTF format.
I’m an associate editor at Shimmer and also facilitate the Wordos writing workshop. I’ve recently won the Whidbey’s Writers Award and Writers of the Future and attended the Clarion Workshop. My fiction can be found in Shock Totem and Doorways magazine & the Escape Clause anthology.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
XXX Smith st.
Smallville, KS 12345
This is very subjective and your mileage may seriously vary. I don’t say this is the *right* way to do a cover letter, but it has worked okay for me. That’s it, no magic. No rocket science, just the basic information. If a market doesn’t want to see a bio or my sales, I leave them off.
Unfortunately, in my job as a slush reader, I often see more *ahem* creative uses of the cover letter. Here are what I see as some common mistakes:
1.) “Dear Sir”
When I send out my own stuff I usually go to ralan.com and look up the editor’s name(s). It just seems polite. It’s certainly not the end of the world to get a “Dear Editor” letter though. No big deal either way.
What is a problem is the “Dear Sirs” letter. For example, the Shimmer staff are mostly women. Even though I’m one of the few dudes, it really pisses me off when we get a “Dear Sirs” cover letter. Why are you assuming the staff is male? If you’re not going to look up who edits our magazine (Beth Wodzinski, btw), at least use the non-gender specific opening.
2.) Don’t be cute
This is your new best buddy. I beam this fiction-unit to you from the planet Pluto where all the best fiction grows. Shimmer is the best magazine ever! Buy this story or I’ll burn out your brain with a laser drill.
Galaxford The Mighty
Somewhere out there is an evil “how to get published” book that apparently lots of people read. It implores you to GET NOTICED. Be funny! Be cute! Remind the editor how much you love their magazine and try to form a relationship with them! How can you sell your story if the editor doesn’t notice you, right?
You don’t want me to notice you because I find your letter annoying. I’m going to read your story, no matter what. Help me stay in a good mood before I read it.
3.) Drop the hype. Don’t cajole, beg, apologize, etc …
Sorry you didn’t like my last story. I only wrote it in half an hour. You probably won’t like this one either.
I think there’s this idea that if you apologize for your work before I read it, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. No dice. Again I think, “uh oh” and open your story with trepidation.
This may be only personal to me, but I’m not a big fan of “Sorry you didn’t like my last story, maybe you’ll like this one better.” It’s nothing personal, dude, we didn’t accept your last story, we might not choose this one, we’re picky. Your cover letter is not going to guilt us into buying something. Better to just send the stories one by one and see if something hits.
Same for cover letters that tell me how much I’m going to LOVE your story. Let your work speak for itself. Don’t tell me how amazing-super-great-awesome your story is and how I’m going to faint when I see it.
No offense, but you’re unqualified to say whether I’m going to like your story or not. Just send it to me. I’ll let you know what I think.
4.) Don’t summarize your story
“Magic Monkeys Of Utah,” is a fun tale of merriment and woe where a lone monkey is able to overcome great adversity to save the woman he loves. It draws from the mythic tale of Perseus in that …
Arg! I don’t want to know! I’m about to find out when I READ YOUR STORY.
Repeat after me: The short story market is not the same as the novel market.
When you submit a novel, yes, they want a summary of your book, but, with very few exceptions, short story markets don’t want summaries. Save yourself the work and show the editor that you are familiar with the process.
5.) Don’t pad your sales, don’t lie and leave your mom out of this.
Seriously, we’re a magazine. We know pretty much every other magazine out there. When I open a letter and see a list of eight magazine’s I’ve never heard of, my first thought is, “did they make these up?” We’re not trying to be mean, but we don’t care if your mom (or your college journal or a zine you yourself started) bought one of your stories. The only reason we want to see your previous sales is because we might see one that prints stories similar to us. And for God’s sake, DON’T LIE. I won’t say I catch everyone who lies about their sales, but there are certain writers who will never make a sale with us now.
Personally, I think it’s standard to list only three markets. Three. I don’t need to (and won’t) read your list of 50 sales. Tell me the best three, or the most recent three and let me get to your story.
If you don’t have any sales, no big deal. I’m going to read your story anyway, remember? If your cover letter is professional, then I’m going to go into your story with a fuzzy warm feeling in my heart.
6.) But DO use a cover letter
Should you just skip the whole cover letter thing and let me just get to your @!#$%& story? Well, it’s true some markets say explicitly they don’t need or want them. But unless they say that, assume we’d at least like the basic kind above. Here at Shimmer, it feels a little rude when you send a blank email with a story attached to it. We give a lot of personal comments on stories, but we generally don’t bother with folks who send us the blank emails. Sure, don’t be cute, but at least drop us a note.