The Occult Wisdom of Cover Letters

The Basic Form:

This is my cover letter:

Dear Editor,

I am submitting the story “Story” for your consideration. It is approximately # words long. Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Helena Bell

The general wisdom on cover letters is that they will almost always hurt you more than they help. The shorter your cover letter, typically the better. However this advice doesn’t always sit well with new writers who are so desperate to break in to a magazine that they pepper their cover letters with dozens of publications, irrelevant degrees, and plot summaries.

The reason people want to tweak their cover letters to include certain biographical information is out of a belief that the cover letter will influence the Editor’s opinion of the story itself. If you present yourself as a professional, the Editor will assume the story is of professional quality and read it with a mind to buy it. The same reasoning is used to justify higher quality paper for snail mail subs (because your writing is special and deserves the best). The problem is you are focusing all your thoughts and energies on things that have absolutely nothing to do with the story you’re submitting.

A professional cover letter will only list relevant information. The most relevant information is your name, the story’s name, the story’s length, whether or not it’s a simultaneous submission (usually only relevant for submitting to literary markets… but even that’s not always necessary as you only need to inform them if it’s accepted elsewhere), and the story’s previous publications (only relevant for submitting to reprint markets, obviously).

Other information that MIGHT be relevant includes:

1) Your three most recent and/or prestigious publications.

2) MFA and/or workshop credits (like Clarion West)

3) Awards

4) Writing Groups/Associations

5) Education

6) Age

Where things become tricky is in deciding whether or not the information is relevant, and how to mention it. So let’s go through them one by one.

Most recent/prestigious publications

Of all the optional information, this is the most common to include. If I were going to edit my cover letter to include it, this is how it would read:

Dear Editor,
I am submitting the story “Story” for your consideration. It is approximately # words long. Previously my stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Strange Horizons. Thank you for your time.
Sincerely,
Helena Bell

Variation for when one or more stories have not yet appeared:

Dear Editor,
I am submitting the story “Story” for your consideration. It is approximately # words long. My stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Strange Horizons. Thank you for your time.
Sincerely,
Helena Bell

Variation for first sale that has not yet appeared:

Dear Editor,
I am submitting the story “Story” for your consideration. It is approximately # words long. I have a story forthcoming in [Magazine]. Thank you for your time.
Sincerely,
Helena Bell

Obviously, the publications will change depending on where I’m submitting. If I’m submitting a horror piece I may swap out Strange Horizons for The Dark. If it’s to a literary magazine, I would lead with The Indiana Review.

The hard thing is figuring out which publications, if any, will have an impact on the editor or slush reader. You’re hoping that the editor is familiar with the market and has a favorable impression, or better yet: the editor read that particular issue, remembers your particular story and is now excited to read a new story by you. Obviously, the more well known the market, the more likely this scenario is.

Therefore, if you’ve sold a story to a pro-paying market, list it. If it’s a semi-pro with a stellar award history, list it. If it’s My Grandmother’s Refrigerator Quarterly that went defunct after two issues… skip it.

And if you’re uncertain as to whether you should list it or not, just skip it. A basic cover letter that mentions nothing but the story will not hurt you. A cover letter that lists 15 publications that the editors/slush readers have never heard of will probably hurt you.

Note: if your cover letter lists 3 publications that the editors/slush readers have never heard of, it probably won’t hurt you, but it won’t necessarily impress anyone either. I personally would skip mentioning it on the basis of the theory that editors LOVE to discover new talent.

MFA and/or workshop credits

Anecdotally genre editors and slush readers like to complain that the cover letters that mention an MFA program generally come attached to their worst submissions. A lot of genre writers hate MFA programs, but that’s a different essay. But generally speaking, if you’ve never sold a story before, an MFA credit gives you something to list. It’s basically a security blanket if the thought of a 3 sentence cover letter makes you nervous. I never list mine (and I have 2).

The other thing to possibly mention is graduation from a particular workshop: Clarion West, Clarion UCSD, Odyssey, Viable Paradise, OSC’s Bootcamp, etc. Whether or not to mention it is almost ENTIRELY dependent on who the editor of the publication to which you are submitting is. For instance, if you went to OSC’s Bootcamp and you’re submitting to OSC’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, there might be a backdoor submission process by which you can bypass slush and get passed straight to the editor. I know in the past other editors have had similar processes for their students at the other workshops.

And, like the MFA, if you fear the 3 sentence cover letter, saying you went to Clarion UCSD gives you an extra sentence. Some examples:

MFA:

I am submitting the story “Story” for your consideration. It is approximately # words long. I have an MFA in Fiction from North Carolina State University. Thank you for your time.

Workshop:

I am submitting the story “Story” for your consideration. It is approximately # words long. I am a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Thank you for your time.

Combination:

I am submitting the story “Story” for your consideration. It is approximately # words long. My work is forthcoming in [Magazine] and I am a graduate of [Workshop]. Thank you for your time.

Overkill:

I am submitting the story “Story” for your consideration. It is approximately # words long. Previously my stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Strange Horizons. I have an MFA in Fiction from North Carolina State University and am a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Thank you for your time.

Awards

If you have a Pulitzer, I guess mention it? I’d mention it. I wouldn’t stop mentioning it.

Generally awards are completely irrelevant in a cover letter, but like the MFA or Workshop credit, they might give you an extra “thing” to mention if you want an extra sentence, or a third item in a list.

The main reason I included this section was to warn people about some bad advice from the Writers of the Future people. Do not, I repeat, do NOT mention that the story you’re submitting was an Honorable Mention, or a Semi-Finalist, or a non-published Finalist. You’re basically advertising the fact that someone else rejected the story. So unless you’ve been specifically directed by a specific editor to submit the story to them and remind them that it was a Finalist or whatever at WotF, keep it to yourself. If you won the contest, or were a published finalist, then just list the credit like you would any other magazine.

Writing Groups/Associations

I’ve heard some people say that they like to mention SFWA membership because it signals that they are a professional and will comport themselves in a professional manner. This made me wonder how much interaction the writer had had with other SFWA members…

Okay that was mean. But all that SFWA membership says is that you met their membership requirements and paid a membership fee. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to mention, but unless you’re submitting to an anthology or magazine that’s closed to everyone except SFWA members, I don’t see any real advantage at mentioning the membership instead of whatever publication credits got you into SFWA.

Similarly, I wouldn’t mention any critique groups like Codex or Critters unless specifically requested to do so by an editor.

Education

If it’s questionable to list an MFA or workshop, it’s twice as questionable to list other education. But occasionally (very, very rarely) it might be relevant enough to the story that you might want to mention it. For example, if you’re writing a hard SF story and sending it to Analog, you might want to mention if you have a PhD in Mathematics or Astrophysics or whatever scientific field is connected to the story. This might encourage the editor to give you the benefit of the doubt when it comes to believability. Or it might not.

Age

Most editors like to encourage young writers. It’s not going to convince the editor to buy a story they ordinarily wouldn’t, but they might be more willing to give you more personalized feedback.

The Point of a Cover Letter: Presumption of Competence

The reason to include all this information is to demonstrate to the editor a certain level of competence. You can read guidelines, you can follow professional standards, etc. It will not convince the editor to buy the story, but it may keep the editor from assuming up front that your story will be terrible. An analogy:

Pretend you are opening a business and you need to hire someone to be your assistant. You place an ad in the paper that states that people can show up whenever they want for an interview on Day X. First come first served (and you might have to wait in line for 3 years).

Person 1 shows up and introduces herself by listing the three most recent places she’s worked. You have been to these places and know that they are highly professional companies and their employees can be trusted to have good skills suited for the job. Person 1 will thus begin the interview with a presumption of competence. You will expect her to be able to demonstrate certain skills. You will ask her about these skills, but you will also be aware that her skills might be rusty, or perhaps not particularly suited to your unique job requirements. Maybe at her previous jobs she was required to speak French, and while you like French very much, what you really need is someone who speaks Russian, or can tap dance, or cook a dozen omelets while blindfolded. Maybe she also has these skills, but you really don’t know until you ask. All you really know, thanks to the presumption of competence, is that she probably won’t suddenly start screaming with exuberance and in tongues. At least, you’re pretty sure. And if she does, you might be willing to examine the possibility that it has a legitimate purpose of some kind, and you won’t let it change your opinion of her if she seeks other employment opportunities at your company.

Person 2 shows up and simply gives you his name. Nothing else. You know nothing about him, and have no idea if any one question you ask is going to send him running to the corner to pee all over the potted plants. You proceed carefully, but optimistically. Unless of course your last 10 applicants all peed in the corner in which case you proceed with much caution and very little hope.

Person 3 shows up and spends fifteen minutes giving his entire work history and you’re also fairly convinced that most of these “companies” were owned by his parents. He follows with a slide show of his summer in Africa during which he makes a scale model of his cat out of mashed potatoes which came from… you really don’t want to know where it came from. By the end you know it’s only a question of when he’s going to jump up and pee in ALL the corners and you say a silent prayer before asking your first question. Maybe he surprises you. Maybe he USED to pee in the corner but since then he’s been completely housebroken and has learned all these nifty new tricks. He’s not fluent in Russian, but he’s conversational and improving daily. If he nails the finish (a behind the back omelet toss) he’ll get the job, despite the fact that he listed his psychic as a reference.

This is why editors have slush readers. Slush readers are the receptionists who quickly learn that they need to keep their workspace covered in plastic. They read your cover letter with a sense of fear and dread and sometimes joyful glee (I reject YOU, Mr. “I have an MFA from Iowa”!). Nothing pleases them. Nothing. It’s best to keep your eyes lowered and answer any and all questions promptly and respectfully. Sometimes they send you on your way because they don’t like the cut of your suit, but they’re usually volunteers who are only there for love of… helping companies hire people. Err, this analogy appears to have run away from me so I better stop. But seriously: slush readers are DYING for a good story to break the monotony of slush. Impress them and you will win their undying gratitude and adoration. And they will pine desperately for you when the next story pees in the corner.

No cover letter on earth will get you into a magazine if you don’t send them something they want to read. And plenty of cover letters will sour their impression of the story before they even get to the title. So please, for the love of Ken Liu, calm down. Take a deep breath. Send them something short and simple.

And if it makes you feel better,I’m hearing more and more that editors and slush readers don’t look at the cover letter until after the story has been read. So… again. All that matters is the story you send them.

Final Thoughts

In the discussion that prompted me to write this, a few people mentioned that it’s the norm to mention things on a resume which I and others have said you absolutely do not put in a cover letter. For instance, being a Finalist in the WOTF competition is an accomplishment. So why should you hesitate? This is my reasoning: On a resume or CV listing contests makes sense because the product you are promoting AND selling is you. Anything about you is relevant.

A cover letter does promote you (as a writer), but what you’re selling is the story. You are mostly irrelevant except insofar as the Editor has to go through you to get to the story. In fact, if stories came fully formed out of the ether, and editors didn’t have to deal with writers (needy, ego-driven, constantly vacuuming their cats) at all, they’d probably be thrilled.

This is the cover letter that I secretly (well, not anymore) want to use:

Dear Editor,
I am submitting the story “Story” for your consideration. It is approximately # words long. My work has or is forthcoming in Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016, Strange Horizons, Shimmer, The Dark, and the Indiana Review. I have an MFA in Fiction from North Carolina State University and am a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. I was also a finalist for the 2012 Nebula Award for Best Short Story.
Sincerely,
Helena Bell
P.S. LOVE ME! PLEASE LOVE ME! OH GOD I WILL DIE WITHOUT YOUR ACCEPTANCE!

But I don’t, because I don’t want to scare people. Thus unless instructed to do otherwise by the editor or magazine to whom I am submitting, I use the following cover letter:

Dear Editor,
I am submitting the story “Story” for your consideration. It is approximately # words long. Thank you for your time.
Sincerely,
Helena Bell

Appendix: Terrible Things I (and others with whom I have spoken on this matter) Have Seen in Cover Letters

· Extensive biographical information. Uncomfortably detailed biographical information.

· Head shots

· What the story is “about” (because apparently reading it will not tell me)

· A cover letter longer than a page (and thus longer than the actual submitted poem)

· Using the wrong editor’s name, or using the incorrect title (e.g. calling a female editor “Mr.”)