How Not to Write a Cover Letter for a Literary Magazine

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This week I’ve been completing my responsibilities as guest editor for Issue 38 of Dream Catcher Magazine which has been a very pleasant experience. I went through the last batch of paper submissions (Dream Catcher are paper submissions only at the minute) and entered the details into a spreadsheet I’d created, then wrote the editorial and sent it to the editorial team. It’s been great to work with the team over at York and I think there’ll be an announcement soon about the future of the magazine, which I’m very interested in indeed.

It’s been ages since I worked with hard copies of poems. When I’m mentoring or critiquing poems or editing other people’s manuscripts I work entirely on the computer, I don’t print work out. And it’s rare that I start my own work on paper, though I do keep a hand written journal which I write in daily and occasionally notes for poems appear in there first. It was actually quite nice to sit in bed on a morning with my big mug of black coffee and my little cat, reading the submissions and marking them with any comments, turning them over one by one and ending up with a satisfying, physical representation of all that work. The submissions came in all sizes and styles, and there was a huge variety of cover letter styles. Whilst the cover letter shouldn’t ever put an editor off reading through a submission, remember that the cover letter is the first thing that an editor sees of you, the writer. If poetry is a conversation between writer and reader, the cover letter to the editor is the ice breaker to that conversation. I’ve put together a few ‘don’ts’ for cover letter writing below.

1. Type, don’t write

Don’t send a hand written cover letter. As neat as your writing is, it will never be as neat and readable as a type written letter. Handwritten letters are difficult to read and although they might feel personal to write, they feel unprofessional for an editor to read. Lots of submissions we received came with beautiful little greetings cards and postcards, which is a lovely touch, but send these alongside a typed cover letter, not instead of a typed cover letter. As a half way house, if you don’t have access to your own computer or typewriter, it would be acceptable to type most of the cover letter out and leave gaps to personalise it for separate publications. We understand that you might not be able to get to the library or internet cafe for every submission you want to make, so will want to create a batch of cover letters at once, but please also understand that we can’t read your writing, so when we email you to tell you how much we love your short story, you may never receive it because looks very much like in your handwriting.

2.  Don’t assume we’ll remember your address

The average publication receives hundreds and hundreds of submissions. Even if you have been published by the magazine before, please don’t assume that we’ll remember your email address and postal address. We might remember you, might love your work, but we won’t remember where you live. If we did it would be weird. So please, please always include your email address, postal address and your name.

3. Don’t make us do any more leg work than we need to

If you have a list of previously published works as part of your biography, please don’t dangle it as a reward: ‘details of previous publications are available on request’ is not really a biog and it doesn’t really do you any favours. With the best will in the world I can’t justify the time it would take me to chase this up as it would mean other submitters work remains on the ‘to be read’ pile while I’m doing that. Better to just write a brief list, with your pride and joy at the top: ‘I have been previously published in The Rialto, Hair of the Dog, The Queen’s Handbag’ etc. We will always be interested in what you’ve been doing and where abouts you are in your career, we just can’t afford the time looking for that information.

4. Please do actually send a cover letter

I was quite surprised to find a few submissions without cover letters at all, just six poems in an envelope with the email on every page as a contact. I’m trying to put my finger on what it is that makes this bad form, after all, we do judge the poems/prose on the quality of the work and not on the cover letter, but it just feels a bit like you couldn’t be bothered. Going back to the conversation analogy, I guess this is the equivalent of going to a party, walking up to someone and just shouting your poems in their face. At least prepare us with a ‘hello, my name is Tod HotBod and here are six poems’. It’s always nice to have a hello.

5. Never, ever, ever address the letter to ‘Dear Sirs’

Even if you are sure that the editor/s are male. The best thing you can do is actually use the name of the person you are addressing: Mr. or Ms. is acceptable, Dear Editors is acceptable, Dear Sir/Madam is acceptable. Dear Sirs makes the assumption that either all editors are male, or that even if the editor or the person dealing with the submission is female, they are of less importance than any male working for this company. This is 2018 not 1818, and we are not impressed with this rubbish. Dr Who is now a woman, we have reached the highest level in the universe, address us appropriately.

6. A little bit of research goes a long way

If you haven’t got any publication history, if you don’t really know what to say about yourself, rather than just saying ‘my name is Tod HotBod, here are six poems’ and signing off, tell us why you love poetry, even better, tell us why you love the magazine that you are submitting to. Buy the magazine, get it out of the library, borrow it off a friend and find something you like about it. It’s really difficult to get feedback on magazines, so reading that you get the magazine out of the library every issue and read it cover to cover will make our day. It won’t automatically get you into the magazine, but  your enthusiasm for the magazine won’t be forgotten.

7. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

Feedback is good: ‘Hello my name is Tod HotBod, I enclose six poems to be considered for issue 300 of The Queen’s Handbag. I really enjoyed that last issue, but I wish there had been more short stories’ is good. ‘Hello my name is Tod HotBod, I enclose six poems to be considered for issue 300 of The Queen’s Handbag. I got your last issue and have to say I was very disappointed, there were no naked ladies and very few poems about cats’ is not. Especially if you’re trying to get a poem into the magazine. Just saying.

8. Don’t ignore the submission guidelines

This is quite an important one. If it says in the submissions guidelines not to send more than six poems, don’t send twelve because they’re part of a series. Read the submissions guidelines and adhere to them. They’re there to speed the process up. Sometimes they’re there to ensure there’s not a massive amount of faffing about when creating layouts for the magazine, so if it says 12 point Times New Roman, don’t send it in 16 point Wingdings. Also, please, please don’t put it into a teeny tiny size to fit it on two pieces of paper instead of four. I understand that paper is precious, but, as an editor, if I can’t read it then I’m going to struggle to accept it.

9. Don’t be afraid to send a query

Thankfully, in the literary world, there are no hard and fast rules. You might have something which doesn’t quite fall into one category, perhaps you have a monologue or a slice of a script or a word scape that is unusual. Magazines like unusual, if it’s good quality. Don’t be afraid to email an editor and asking if they’d like to see it, or sending it in a submission. Use the cover letter to explain what it is, your intentions behind it and why the magazine might be a good fit for it.

10. Don’t stress too much

After all that, a cover letter is really just an opener for the work that you’re sending, so don’t let a fear of getting it wrong stop you from submitting. Keep it clear, polite, concise. Don’t worry about getting it wrong, don’t worry about not having much in your biog, not having a long list of publications or not having submitted anywhere before. A cover note that says ‘I am new to submitting my work. I wanted to try the Queen’s Handbag as I’ve always really enjoyed it, here are the titles of the poems enclosed. Thanks for your time, I look forward to your response’ is as welcome as any page long CV and publication history.






7 thoughts on “How Not to Write a Cover Letter for a Literary Magazine

  1. MoiraG

    Useful, thanks 😊. By way of comparison I recently heard a presentation by the editor of a long-standing literary magazine who said he was not impressed by a listing of previous publications and with the implication that it would put him off accepting those submissions!


    1. Yes, it’s a tricky one. I don’t think it puts me off, I like to know where people have been as I may have seen their work previously and like to make that connection, but similarly I make my decisions on the poems in my hand, so it’s not a crucial part of the process.


  2. Pingback: Writer Life: How To Set Up a Submissions Routine – Wendy Pratt Writing

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