Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Cover Letters

I've had this thing for a while now and only used it for class work, but my friend Stewart shamed me into posting, so here goes. As the assistant editor at Dark Wisdom magazine, I see a lot of cover letters. A cover letter is your first impression, yet many that I see make the writer sound desperate and/or don't provide the kind of raw information that tells the reader that this person is a professional I've made a "form" letter that should cover the bases (alter as you'd like and always read a market's guidelines to find out if they have a certain way of doing things) but first, let me tell you some things not to put in one:

Don't put a time limit on how long you're willing to wait before submitting somewhere else. If a writer isn't willing to wait for a reply, he or she is in the wrong business.

Don't challenge the editor. Every so often I get some variation of "This may be too dark for you." Which usually translates as "This is a craptacular slaughterfest." or "The whole plot is about butchering babies." If you think a story may be too dark for a market, it most likely is and you've lost my interest in it as an editor.

Don't give a detailed synopsis of your story. You may want to talk a little bit about the theme of the piece or how you played with common horror tropes, but don't overexplain the story. Why should I read it when I feel like I already have?

Don't ask for a critique. 99% of the time, I just don't have the time to give any personal thoughts on a story. Once in a great while I have a lull where I can help someone who needs it (and usually I get flayed for it on a blog) but it's very rare. I suggest a simple "I'm open to suggestions if you have the time." It lets an editor know you're open-minded but not pushy or needy.

Never give out your Social Security number. I've had this happen a few times now. I already have your name and address, don't send me the final piece in the trifecta of identity fraud. We may need it if we're publishing you and we'll let you know then.

Don't babble. A good many people try to be witty...most aren't. Keep it brief and try not to sound too cool for school.

Anyway, here's that sample cover letter:

Dear editor,

Please consider "(Story Name here)" for publication in (Magazine Name here). I'm offering (whatever rights you are providing, usually First American Publishing Rights). Thank you for your time, I look forward to hearing from you.


Your Name

Note that stories are always in quotes and magazines are in italics. You don't need your address here because it's on the manuscript. When you get published you can list a couple of the mags and books you were in but don't list more than a few because no one cares after they see the biggest names you have under your belt. Again, check your market's guidelines for any requests in this area. Don't kill your chances of getting published over something easily fixed.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Chuck:
You have a fabulous new blog and I am so sorry that Stewart ripped off your color scheme. Beyond that, I loved your posting on cover letters- especially the parts concerning not challenging the editor and not asking for a critique. Regarding your points concerning listing a writer's publishing credits on the cover letter, should a writer bother listing ezines that he or she has been published in?

Anonymous said...

I once sat across from an elderly college professor emeritus (not William) and got into an argument over cover letters.

He contended that even if a writer did a lengthy cover letter, that an editor owed it to that writer to read through the whole thing.

My contention was that a cover letter is probably skimmed. If it is short, competent and to the point, then you have a point in your favor. If it is sloppily written, long in the tooth, and overall annoying, then you've made it a little harder on yourself, but probably not entirely impossible. Nope. Probably the first paragraph of the story will do that all by itself.

Then again, if your name is John Grisham, Dan Brown, or Rick Moore, you can probably write a letter on a brown bag in crayon and have little trouble selling it.

Chuck Zaglanis said...

Hi Rick,

I would only list an ezine if it had a good reputation for editing content. I've been to some where they just slap the stories up as they come's not a pretty picture and you'll get no respect for being listed there.

Chuck Zaglanis said...

Hi Stewart,

Your professor friend would be happy to know that I do read them all the way to the end, I need a laugh now and again too.

I get cover letters that are (in the case of flash fiction) longer than the submission. It's absurd and a waste of everyone's time. Either the story stands or falls on its own merits.

Vwriter said...

If you stop with the cover letters for magazine submissions and never address how to create a fine novel synopsis, Clint Eastwood will never ride with you again.

The townspeople will whisper amongst themselves. As you stride down the street of literary dreams, every now and then the wind will be just right to carry along on its current the words of the blacksmith telling his scruffy, barefooted children, "He's yeller, chilluns. Took ta easy way wit da cover letter. Hid like a spooked jackrabbit from a s'npsis."

"He was a fine man," your neighbors will tell a nosey reporter some day. The widdow women who used to bring you apple pie will put in, "Don't put this in the paper, okay? He seemed manly enough, except every time someone brunged up him explaining how to write a good book synopsis, he run home and cry like a baby."

Defend yourself and your reputation early, sir. Challenge the topic to a duel before it strides down the street toward you.

Chuck Zaglanis said...

Ah reckon I hear a no good polecat callin’ me out. I’ll git to you in my own time mister.

Christina Rundle said...

It took me a long time to understand what a cover letter should be. Now I think I have it down. I think I've laughed so hard at my old letters, probably not to different from the ones you get and laugh at. Hanging out on writer forums helped a lot though because people there will look over your letters and show you what you are doing wrong, then people like me see the examples and say, "Ohhhh, I see."

Chuck Zaglanis said...

Hi Christina,

Can you recommend any good writer's forums?

I think you exhibit too much good taste and common sense to match some of the stuff I've seen. I considered copying them, removing names and whatnot, then posting them as an example of what not to do, but it didn't seem very professional.