An Editor's Guide to the Do's and Don'ts of Literary Journal Cover Letters
Updated: Sep 24, 2019
Part of what makes cover letters so intimidating is that no one tells you what editors expect from them. Writers do their best to figure out what works from past experience and hearsay, but there are few guides on the subject compared to what you can find on professional cover letters. Luckily, you're not alone. I'm Fiction Editor Ethan Brightbill, and after ten years working for lit journals including Passages North, Literary Orphans, Lake Effect, and more, I'm here to dispel some common misconceptions about lit journal cover letters and author bios.
The most important thing to remember when writing a cover letter is that the editor who looks at yours has likely already read half a dozen others just in that same day, and while you want your letter to stand out, it’s even more important not to waste the editor’s time. A cover letter will never make or break an acceptance for your piece, but it can show editors that you take their journal and your own work seriously, or it can bore them with needless details. The list below will help you do the former and avoid the latter.
Do address your letter to a specific person, usually the genre editor. It shows that you care enough about the journal to at least look at their web page.
Do keep things as brief and concise as possible; remember, yours isn't the only cover letter an editor likely needs to read that day. Barring unusual circumstances, your cover letter sans author bio should be one or two brief paragraphs. The bio itself should be another paragraph written in third person.
Don’t use your cover letter to summarize your work unless requested to do so. The editor will know what your piece is about once they’ve read it, and repeating that information in advance just bloats the cover letter. If there’s something you’re worried the editor(s) won’t understand without you mentioning it, then you should go back and revise your work so that it stands on its own. This also goes for what inspired or influenced your writing. While your creative process is understandably significant to you, it isn’t relevant information to the editorial staff.
Do mention what you like about the journal. It shows you care enough to read their work, and while it won’t change a rejection into an acceptance, it does encourage the editor(s) to match the attention you gave their publication. A sentence at the start of the cover letter is perfect.
Don’t include biographical information in your cover letter. That’s what the bio is for. It’s not a big deal if you include one or two details, but ask yourself if the editors really need to know about your passion for exotic fruit smoothies.
Do mention whether or not this is a simultaneous submission. Many mainstream literary journals will assume as much, but some ask that you inform them if this is the case. If you make it a habit to specify simultaneous submissions, that’s one less thing to worry about, and it does let the editor(s) know that someone else could snap up your writing if they don't. Be sure to keep an eye out for journals that don’t accept simultaneous submissions as well. They’re rare, but they exist.
Do feel free to admit if this is your first publication. It’s not required, but it will explain why you don’t have past pubs, and most editors recognize that we all have to begin somewhere. Speaking of which…
Don’t lie about your publishing history in your bio. While a string of big names in your author bio might get an editor’s hopes up briefly, it won’t change whether or not they wish to publish your work once they’ve read it. Because of the subjective nature of writing and the vast number of submissions lit journals receive, editors must routinely turn down submissions by writers with great credentials. Lying about your own won't get you ahead, but it might get you blacklisted if anyone cares to do a five second search for your work.
Don't think that you need to name every place that's ever published your work in your bio. If you only have a few past pubs, by all means, mention all of them, but as you become more established as a writer, consider limiting the list to the most recent or prestigious lit journals that have taken your work. (If the journal you're submitting to has expressed interest in or is similar to another place where you've been published, consider mentioning them as well.) A couple lines of publications is fine, but more than that just stretches your bio without adding significant information for editors and readers.
Don’t feel like you have to mention your education if you don't want to. While having an MFA or other degree at least shows that you’re willing to invest time in writing, it won’t get you more acceptances, and the absence of one won’t hurt you. Many successful authors don’t mention degrees even if they do have them, so frankly, it may not even matter.
Do understand that as deadening as writing cover letters can sometimes be, editors appreciate the time you spend creating them, and they recognize when you try to make their (typically unpaid) jobs easier. Editors are usually writers themselves, and they’re just as eager to be amazed by great writing as you are to give it to them. Recognize that the people reading your work are hoping you’ll succeed, and keep writing.