1. DO YOUR RESEARCH
2. GET THE EDITOR'S NAME
One way that you can indirectly let editors know that you’re professional and have done your research on their journal or magazine is to mosey on over to the journal’s Masthead and get the name of the editor(s).
When you write “Dear Fiction Editor”, you’re indicating that you don’t know the journal you’re submitting to very well. It’s not going to make or break a submission, but small things like this can frame how editors will read your work and how much time they will spend on it.
Make sure you thoroughly proofread your letter before pressing send. Sometimes submissions come through addressed to the wrong editor or journal or have several typos. Not a great way to make an impression.
3. DON'T PAD YOUR LETTER
Editors actually want to read less than more. By adding unnecessary information to your cover letter, you run the risk of irritating the editors before they even have a chance to read your submission.
Fun fact: it’s okay to be inexperienced or unpublished. No one is going to judge you for that.
What they will judge you for is a desperate attention-seeking letter that is filled with shoddy witticisms and unnecessary information. Harsh, I know, but it’s true.
Don’t add unnecessary personal information to your cover letter like the fact you live with your cat in your mother’s basement or that you suffer from depression. Most writers suffer from depression. I mean we’re all living in a nightmare for goodness sake! Of course you’re depressed. We all are! But that’s not the kind of information editors need to know.
Most editors are writers and have their own memories of starting out. In fact many editors like the idea of discovering new voices. So rather than trying to pad your letter and to look more experienced than you are—just say that you’re new to writing. It’s okay. I promise.
On the other hand, if you’re a well-published writer and have 100+ publications. Don’t list them all. That is obnoxious. Only list the publications that you think will fit with the aesthetic of the journal you’re submitting to.
A short bio with just a handful of publications is sufficient. Editors don’t have time to read your life story or every little magazine you’ve published in.
4. AVOID HUMOUR
In all the submissions I’ve read over the years, there has only be one writer who attempted to use humour in her cover letter that was actually funny. While her cover letter was genuinely witty, her submission didn’t live up to that initial humour of the letter. Too bad!
If you are hilarious, then put that humour in your story or poem. Leave it out of the cover letter. If your humour doesn’t fit the editor’s humour then you could inadvertently frame your submission negatively.
5. AVOID SUMMARIZING YOUR STORY
Some editors may feel differently about this, but I recommend not summarizing your story in your cover letter when submitting short stories and poems to literary journals. [Submitting cover letters for full-length manuscripts is different and they do often require summaries.]
If you have some contextual information then it’s fine to include that. For example, you may want to mention if the submissions is part of a series or if it is an experimental piece that needs some framing. But if you are just submitting a short story, then avoid summarizing it.
If your writing is strong, your readers should be able to come to their own conclusions about what you are trying to say.
When you frame a story before someone reads it, you are setting up expectations. What if your summary is better than your story? Or what if you are terrible at summarizing but terrific at writing?
Your best bet is to just let the editors experience the piece for themselves the same way readers will should your work get published.
6. DON'T ASK FOR FEEDBACK
Many, if not most, literary editors are working for free or for very little money. They hardly have time to read all the submissions they receive, let alone offer critique. Therefore, it is just not feasible for them to give feedback on the hundreds or thousands of submissions they get.
Sometimes if an editor feels strongly about a work then they might provide some words of encouragement or invite a writer to resubmit. If that happens to you, consider yourself very fortunate and resubmit as soon as you have written something terrific. But otherwise be grateful that someone is taking time out of their short life to read your work and publish it. If you want feedback start a writing workshop, post in online forum, or take a class.
7. INCLUDE NECESSARY INFORMATION
Many writers forget to include the basics such as the genre that they’re submitting in or the titles of the works being submitted. Some journals like to know if the submission is simultaneous (meaning it’s being considered by other journals) and others like to know some brief biographical information.
Some editors advise indicating writing you’ve read and enjoyed from their journal. I tend to not like this because it often feels forced and like filler. But I’ve seen that advice around, so it might be something to consider if your cover letter is on the short side.
When writing your bio, keep it short and write it in third person. Don’t include any value statements about yourself or your writing. Don't say things like "you'll love my story" or "I think my story is a good fit". That's for the editor to decide.
Just include the following:
That’s it. Try to keep your bio length to around 50 words.
8. THANK THE EDITORS
It’s always nice to close with a thank you and an acknowledgement that someone is taking the time to read your work.
9. KEEP GOOD RECORDS
Most literary journals now use online submission management systems like Submittable and most journals accept simultaneous submissions (but not all so read the guidelines for each journal before you submit).
These management systems are great for keeping track of your submissions. It’s important to let journals know right away if your work has been accepted so that you don’t waste their time if you’ve placed your piece elsewhere.
I also keep an Excel spreadsheet of all my submissions because not all journals use the same online system and some still require hard copy or email submissions.
10. TAKE REJECTION IN STRIDE
Should your work get rejected, try to take in stride. It happens to us all. You’re in good company.
Never email an editor back to ask why you’ve been rejected or to send a nasty note. That just burns bridges and doesn’t help you in the long run. I’ve been published by journals that rejected me for years. It’s just part of the process. All writers go through it.
Avoid letting rejection determine your value as writer. Often editors have to reject perfectly good stories and poems. There is a lot work out there and not enough space to publish it all. A rejection doesn’t mean your writing is terrible. It just means it might not be a fit for a particular publication.
Remember the publishing process is completely subjective. That’s why doing your research is the most important part of the process. The better you know a journal, the better you’ll be able to determine whether or not they are right for your work.
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