Hey there word nerds! I’ve been pondering what sort of things to write about here on my blog and I came to a realization. I studied writing for 3.5 years. Now I’m an editor. I’m in a unique position of seeing the publication process from both sides. So I decided to start a series on the submission process and give you all the insider tips to help you succeed.
Now I can’t promise that if you do all these things, you’ll be selling stories left and right. I can say that they will help you stand out to editors. All these tips come from my experience reading submissions for the magazine I work for. Which brings up another point. These tips are skewed toward submitting stories to a magazine or journal. While some of them might carry over to book submissions, that’s a whole other process, and I have less experience with it.
So here we go! We’ll start with my top 5 tips for writing a killer cover letter. Because (and here’s a free tip) you should always write a cover letter. Always.
1.Address your cover letter to a person.
Now I know this seems like a no-brainer, but I’ve actually read quite a few cover letters that begin “To Whom it May Concern”. I realize that writers often send out stories in batches and want to just be able to print out a letter without hassle, but staking that little bit of time to research the publication and put a name on the letter means a lot. It shows me that the author has put in the time and effort to do even the smallest bit of research.
2. Summarize your story.
I can’t begin to tell you how many cover letters I’ve read that don’t actually say anything about the story the author is selling. I realize that writers want you to read the story without knowing what will happen to really experience it.
But unfortunately, I don’t have time for that. Being an editorial assistant is a full time job and sifting through manuscripts is only a small part of what I do.
I sit down once a month with a pile of 20 or so submissions, though it can be much more than that. I skim those stories and I do it quickly. I just don’t have time to carefully read each one. If a summary from a cover letter catches my attention, I’ll put it on a stack to read more carefully.
So focus on writing a concise, complete, and compelling summary to include in your cover letter. And make sure you mention what genre the story falls under. The magazines I work for are drowning in fiction submissions, so any nonfiction stories immediately go higher on my list.
3. Sell yourself, but be honest.
Another thing I look for in a cover letter is credentials. Seeing that a writer has been published before, even if it’s just once or twice, makes me push them a little higher on my list.
I don’t generally look at where a person has been published (though I might occasionally) just whether he has been. Previous publication tells me that the author has experience with the process and knows what to expect. It means that other publications have found this writer to be talented and worth their interest. It means someone who’s writing is good enough to be noticed.
That’s not to say I discount people who have never been published. I’ve been there before and I know it’s hard to break into the industry. So I try to give everyone a fair shot. But if you have been published, say so.
4.Flaunt your connections.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. If I read in a cover letter that the author has met one of our editors at a writers conference or something like it, I have instructions to immediately pass it on to them. And when I’m sifting through a pile of 20 submissions, that can make the difference in whether it gets published. If nothing else, it usually means the author gets a more personalized, detailed letter even if we choose not to buy it.
So don’t be afraid to speak up about knowing people. Mention that you met the editor at such-and-such a place. If you were referred by an author friend who we’ve published before, that will catch my attention.
But don’t make up connections.
5.Proofread. Then proofread again. Maybe even four or five times.
I was reading submissions yesterday and close to half of the cover letters I read had mistakes in them. And I don’t mean one word spelled wrong. I’m talking about an abundance of commas in all the wrong places and switching a character’s name five times.
If I see a cover letter with mistakes, I have low expectations for that submission. I probably won’t give it more than a quick skim.
So please, please, please proofread your cover letters. Well, proofread everything you send us, really. But this post is about cover letters.
Next up in the submission series: Researching publications.