How to Write a Cover Letter for a Literary Journal Submission

Why you don’t need to stand out in your cover letter

Photo by Bundo Kim on Unsplash.

As the publisher of Fiction Attic Press, which publishes flash fiction, short stories, essays, and novellas-in-flash by new and established writers, I receive a few dozen submissions each month through our submittable portal. In the 17 years since Fiction Attic began, I’ve read thousands of cover letters for journal submissions. Some are good, some are bad, and most are forgettable. It might surprise you to know that the most forgettable cover letters are often the best. That’s because a cover letter for a literary magazine submission should be a bridge to get the reader as quickly as possible to the story. Unlike a query letter, which should drum up excitement about a novel or article you want to submit, a cover letter’s job is to be as brief and invisible as possible.

What Not to Do in Your Cover Letter

Cuteness

A cover letter is never a place to be cute, as in, “I live with my seven gerbils and love Swedish Fish!” That’s great if you’re submitting to a high school writing contest or venue, but for most literary magazines, leave the Swedish fish out of it, unless you know that the editor is a huge fan of Swedish Fish.

Explain, praise, or summarize the story

Your cover letter isn’t a place to sing your own praises — “This story is a riveting journey into the mind of a madman. It offers a unique perspective on mental illness and will be sure to wow your readers.”

Let the reader be the judge of that.

Praise Oneself

Your cover letter definitely shouldn’t vaguely mention publications and awards without backing them up. I recently received a submission with a cover letter that began:

PUBLICATIONS & AWARDS: To date, 30+ short fiction publications in print and online and 12 writing awards. Details on request.

The first problem with this letter is that it isn’t a letter. There’s no salutation. The second problem is that it comes off as arrogant. The writer assumes that this single submission is so important that the editor will take the time and effort to contact the writer requesting “details” of the writer’s publications and awards.

It would be far more impressive to name one or two good publications and one or two real awards. “12 writing awards” could mean that the writer won best essay in a college writing contest, which is irrelevant to an editor. The fact that the writer doesn’t specifically name the awards or publications makes me think they’re not worth mentioning.

Quote Amazon reviews of previous books or stories

Ugh, just…no.

When you’re pitching a book to an agent, of course, you may quote newspaper, magazine, and trade publication reviews of previous books, but writing a query letter for an agent is an entirely different skill. There is no reason to quote reviews in a submission to a journal. Editors don’t expect you to have reviews unless you have a published book; because you’re not submitting a published book to a literary journal, a review has no place in your letter.

The most forgettable cover letters are often the best.

Recap

Your cover letter shouldn’t

  • try to explain your story
  • be arrogant
  • quote Amazon reviews
  • include phrases like, “Jane Writer‘s work deftly plumbs the intricacies of the human psyche.”

What To Include in Your Cover Letter for a Literary Journal Submission

What your cover letter should do is indicate your professionalism so the editor can get past the cover letter and on to the story. It should be a gateway, not a barrier.

It should include a salutation addressed to the correct editor, a brief statement including the title and length of what you’re submitting, a brief bio including two to three previous publications if you have them, and a polite sign-off (known in traditional letter-writing as the complimentary close and the signature).

Whether you have zero publications to your name or an impressive bibliography, if your cover letter is professional, most editors will eagerly set the letter aside and begin reading the story. Remember, editors love to “discover” unpublished writers, so the absence of previous publications isn’t a problem. If the letter is unprofessional, on the other hand, editors will approach the story warily, expecting it to be as poorly executed as the letter.

Your cover letter should indicate your professionalism so the editor can get past the cover letter and on to the story.

A Good Literary Magazine Submission Cover Letter

I wanted to share with you a cover letter in which the writer does almost everything right. This letter came in “over the transom” (publishing speak for unsolicited) through Fiction Attic’s Submittable page.

Dear Fiction Attic Press,

Thank you for considering my work. I am an emerging writer with only a small scattering of published pieces. I appreciate all the time and attention my work receives. I look forward to hearing from you.

This is a simultaneous submission. I will withdraw the piece immediately if it is accepted elsewhere.

I am a writer and graduate student in the MA English program at *** University. My work has been published in *** and ***, and is forthcoming in ***. I live in *** with my fiancée, Jane.

Sincerely,

Joe Writer

Why the letter works:

  • The tone is genuine and not boastful.
  • The writer expresses appreciation for the work that goes into reading submissions (not necessary at all, but it’s certainly a nice gesture).
  • The writer uses a phrase that is a common courtesy of professional letters in any industry: I look forward to hearing from you.
  • The writer acknowledges that it is a simultaneous submission. This is not only courteous; it also indicates that the writer has done his homework, understands the world of literary magazines, and knows that most stories are submitted to multiple publications before they are accepted.
  • The bio is brief and lends credibility: He is working on an MA, which means he is a serious reader and writer. It’s certainly not necessary to have an advanced degree in English or any degree for that matter, but if you have one or are pursuing one, you should include it in your letter.
  • If you don’t have a creative writing background, no worries. Briefly state what you do. Writer Person is a truck driver living in Modesto. Your profession is probably part of your identity. I am always interested in what a submitter does for a living, and if the writer is a truck driver/park ranger/astrophysicist/hot dog stand worker (pretty much anything other than just a writer), I’m instantly intrigued.
  • In the bio, the writer names three publications in which his work has appeared and is forthcoming. Three to four is the maximum number of publications you should name, unless every publication you name is impressive (Glimmer Train, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, etc). I get a lot of letters in which writers name a dozen publications I’ve never heard of. It’s great if you’ve published in very small journals (after all, Fiction Attic is very small!), but you don’t need to name all of them. The proper way to list publications is this: My work has appeared in ***, ***, ***, and other magazines and anthologies. Or My work has appeared in or is forthcoming from ***, ***, and ***, among others.
  • Three sentences is the perfect length for a bio. If you have won literary awards, you can add a sentence after the list of publications stating, My short story, ***, won the *** Emerging Writers Prize. However, resist the temptation to include a long list of third-runner up prizes. I repeat: resist.
  • Although it’s certainly not necessary to name your fiancé, including a third sentence provides a nicely rounded biography. Saying where you live is a perfect way to construct that third sentence. In this case, I found it sweet that he named his fiancé.
  • The one thing Joe Writer should have done differently is address the letter to a person instead of to Fiction Attic Press. In the case of Fiction Attic, I am listed on the About page as the editor. If a magazine lists Fiction Editor, Poetry Editor, or Nonfiction Editor on its masthead or about page, address your cover letter to the specific editor. If no names are provided, simply address it to the name of the publication.

So, there you have it: a simple, effective letter for a literary magazine submission.

One more tip: although you don’t want your letter to be overly familiar, if you share a genuine connection with the editor, mention it. For example: On a personal note, I noticed that you attended The University of Alabama. I was a student there from 2002 to 2006. Roll Tide! If someone wrote this in a letter, I would notice, and it would give me the warm fuzzies.

And just one more: Another thing you might mention in your letter is a recent story or two that you admire from the publication, to show that you’ve done your research and understand what kind of work the journal publishes.

Now, go forth and submit!

psst… a shout-out to Laurel Moon, the literary magazine of Brandeis University, for linking to this post in its submission guidelines.

SUBMIT your flash fiction and to Fiction Attic. Submit your novella-in-flash (we are actively seeking our first novella-in-flash for serial publication).

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Hone your flash fiction and write twelve flash fictions in four weeks in the Fiction Attic Press flash fiction intensive. All stories submitted for this class are automatically considered for publication in Fiction Attic.

Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of six novels and two story collections, including most recently The Wonder Test. Her books have been published in 30 languages.

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Essays on novel writing, publishing, and the writing life from New York Times bestselling novelist Michelle Richmond. Write your novel in my Fiction Master Class: https://thenewmfa.com

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Michelle Richmond

Michelle Richmond

New York Times bestselling author of THE MARRIAGE PACT — I help writers complete their first novels at Novelin9.com. Books at michellerichmond.com