Cover the Basics with Cover Letters

SC Staff Writer

When it comes to writers publishing their work, writing short stories is the easy part. The intense labor begins where their “work” ends. The most essential tool towards a writer’s success in the publishing process is the cover letter, and it serves as either a friend or foe to the prospective author.

Depending on the quality, information, and length of the cover letter, a writer’s story may never see the dancing dust in the sunrays streaming across an editor’s cluttered desk. In other words, if the cover letter fails to impress the editors, they are likely to toss a writer’s hopes right on top of the already towering rejection pile.

To make matters worse, that work could slide off the pile and land in a spot that will become its shroud with only the petrified crust of last week’s tuna sandwich to keep it company. However, whether it winds up in or below the rejection pile or in the email trash folder, writers are left wondering what became of their beloved stories because they have not received the satisfaction of an acceptance letter or the dissatisfaction of a rejection.

No writer wants their work to end up in an unseen place where aspirations and dreams die in the darkness of an envelope. In order to avoid the torture of not knowing, writers must adhere to their intended publication venue’s specific rules regarding cover letters.

If a publication fails to specify what they want in the cover letter, writers must then use their own discretion about what goes into it, keeping in mind that it has the potential to help or hinder them. It helps to review the biographies about the editors and other staff for examples of what kind of information the publication reveals about its employees.

Knowing the difference between a good and bad cover letter heightens the writer’s chances at success, for cover letters are the figurative face of the authors: an introduction to them and their work.

Correct cover letters include necessary basic information, which writers should place in the upper left corner of the page after they have centered the date on the first line. For example, when editors glance at it, they expect to see the date and the writer’s name, address, telephone number, and email address before they look at the body content. The uniform location of these crucial details makes it easier for an editor to relocate a specific writer’s name quickly.

In addition, the subject line in electronic submissions sent via email should state that it is in regards to a short story. With the basic details out of the way, editors will then move on to the content of the letter.

The body of the cover letter begins with a salutation to the editor. Addressing the letter to the editor establishes a direct relationship while demonstrating that the writer took the time to research the publication before submitting to it. For instance, if a writer sends a piece to XYZ Magazine, he will address it “Dear Mr. Smith,” which sounds more personal and professional than “Dear Mr. Editor.” After writers grab the editor’s attention by speaking to him, they have a better chance of getting the editor to read their work. However, the information writers divulge plays as vital a role as the salutation.

With the formalities out of the way, editors can confidently advance to the substance of the cover letter,  which is the writer’s last chance to prove their work is competent and worthy of circulation. To accomplish this successfully, writers should volunteer brief, pertinent facts concerning themselves and their craft in a short, simple, spell-checked description that is grammatically correct and properly punctuated.

The body should include the title and word count of the story, previous publication particulars, and the author’s current career. A writer who has twenty short stories published in various magazines and anthologies across the U.S. and Europe would list a few examples before stating his day job.

Bragging about every achievement repels editors faster than Deet fends off mosquitoes. Let the work speak for itself, for no amount of publication credits will help it if it does not; allow the editor to decide whether the work in question suits his magazine.

Finally, a writer closes with a thank you to the editor for his time and consideration, followed by his signature. The concluding gratitude is as imperative as the salutation, because editors do writers a favor by reading their work.

If editors feel that a cover letter is to their satisfaction, they will proceed in reading and evaluating the actual stories, which is a small victory for the writers. Thus, the work finds the sunlight of an editor’s office, dodging its miserable demise in darkness.

An accurate, well-written cover letter has the authority to give writers a better chance at having their work printed, for it is the gateway to their skills as a story crafter. The purpose of the letter is to get the story out of the envelope or email and into the editor’s sight for contemplation.

As the likelihood of publishing a story is already slim, neglecting the production of a solid introduction via the cover letter diminishes it further. Spark an editor’s curiosity with humility; force him or her to want to know more by always keeping in mind that writers impress editors with their story-telling abilities not a shopping list of their accomplishments. Igniting that interest takes writers one step closer to achieving their goals of reaching people through their words and, of course, immortalizing their names in print.

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