The cover letter strategies here have worked for me with literary journals including North American Review and Catapult, and with more general interest publications including O, the Oprah Magazine, and Guernica. Feel free to adapt the sample for your purposes, or use the outline method explained below.
While it’s important to observe publishing etiquette, you don’t want anxiety over submitting your work to get in the way of why you write in the first place — to express your creativity. I’ve found it best to automate the submission process as much as possible so I can spend more time on creative writing than on administrative writing. Once you have a solid cover letter drafted, you can recycle or adapt it again and again.
Editors are busy folks, too, and in the world of literary journals, many work as volunteers. They will appreciate you making their lives easier with a concise cover letter, and it doesn’t hurt to have an editor read your work while you’ve put them in a good mood. Some things most editors want to know:
Where you heard about their publication
A little about you
Where you’ve been published before
IMHO, one sentence for each of these does the trick. There are exceptions, of course. A few publications don’t want a cover letter at all, and a few want specific information about you. For example, some publications ask about your demographics to help them keep track of how well they are doing with their outreach to writers who aren’t young, hetereosexual cis white men with MFA degrees. My demographic statement is “I’m an old, 97% white lady.” Always read submission guidelines carefully to make sure you are giving the editors what they have asked for.
So, how do you write that “a little about you”? Many publications want a third-person bio to make it easy for them in the event they decide to publish you, so write your all-about-me sentence in the third person. For me, that sentence usually looks like this: “Michele Leavitt, a poet and essayist, is also an adoptee, high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor, and former trial attorney.”
You can start your sentence by listing the qualities or experiences that define you. Where did you grow up? Where do you call home? What do you write? What education and/or work experiences have you had? Who do you call family? If I answered these questions, I could change my a little about me sentence to “Michele Leavitt, a poet and essayist, lives in the Deep South, close to her 29 nieces and nephews.” Which of my sentences do you like better?
Where did you hear about the publication? You’re serious about getting published, so you’ve already read an issue or more of your target publication to see if your work is a good fit. Show the editor you know what makes this magazine tick in a personal way, perhaps by using one of these strategies:
- If a story or poem really wowed you, you might mention that piece in this section of your cover letter. “Hortense Quay’s poem in issue 12 reminded me of why I want to be a poet.”
- If a friend told you about the magazine, use that. “Marshall Dillon told me he had a great experience publishing his work with you,” or “One of your subscribers told me he reads your magazine as soon as it hits his inbox.”
- And obviously, if an editor or writer suggested you send in your work, name that person: “Jane Smith suggested I send you some of my work.”
The takeaway here is to demonstrate that you are familiar with the magazine.
List a few of your best or most relevant previous publications. Like this: “I’ve written essays for venues including Catapult, Sycamore Review, and The Rumpus, and am the author of the Kindle Singles memoir Walk Away.”
What if you don’t have any publications at all? No worries — what editor doesn’t want to discover the next hot writer? Try this on for size:
“If you decide to accept my work, this will be my first publication.”
A note about simultaneous submissions: Most publications accept them, but many want you to let them know if the piece is being considered elsewhere by including a simple sentence in your cover letter like “This piece has been simultaneously submitted elsewhere, and I will notify you promptly should it be accepted by another journal.” Be kind, and be sure to immediately notify all the places you’ve submitted a piece in the happy event it’s accepted somewhere.
And now, the sample:
Questions? Tell me, and I’ll do my best to find an answer. Meanwhile, keep writing!