By: Martha Spall
How do I write a good, engaging cover letter? What information should I include? How important is my cover letter, really—I mean, do editors even read them?
Before I started working with The Offbeat, dear submitters, I didn’t have answers to any of these questions. Perhaps like many of the emerging writers amongst you, I just used a template and hoped for the best as I sent my poems off into the dense, hopeful wilderness that is Submittable.
After having spent a few months reading and editing your submissions, though, I can answer at least one of those questions definitively: yes, editors do read your cover letters. (Most of the time.) And yes, they are important! They’re our first acquaintance with your voice as a writer.
I’ve read some very successful, informative cover letters that vary in tone from the somber and professional to the humorous and relatively informal. Not all of them include a long, impressive list of the author’s previous publications; not all of them were written by English professors, or editors, or grad students. In fact, many of them were written by undergraduates who had never been published before. The one thing they all had in common, though, was that each introduced the voice of the author, and got me interested in the author’s writing before I’d even opened her Word doc.
“How, then, can I inject strong voice into my cover letter?” you may be asking yourself. “Tell me, oh wise and omnipotent editor! I must know the secret!” Well, let me take this opportunity to say that this is an opinion piece, and surely there’s no secret move you can make in your cover letter that will guarantee you an acceptance from every journal you submit to. (Although, if you know of such a secret, please email me.) But I can tell you about some of the commonalities amongst the best cover letters that I’ve read so far.
★ Greeting is important.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rolled my eyes at the phrase “to whom it may concern.” That doesn’t make me want to read your writing, it just makes me feel like a tiny, little cog in the literature machine—and I can’t help but take that bad feeling with me as I begin to read your piece. This isn’t to say that you should comb the internet for the Christian names of every editor who may potentially read your work; anything warm and colloquial is always a good start, e.g. “Hello, Offbeat Editors!”
★ Tell me about you!
I don’t need your life story, but I’m interested in where you’re coming from. This is a great place to warm me up to your voice: you can be funny, and tell me about how much you hate your job at Target and how you dream that someday you’ll make enough money publishing your stories to quit and tell your manager Mark where exactly he can stick the Thanksgiving shift he gave you; you can be serious, and tell me about the talk you gave at CMU about postmodernity and entropy as creative force, and list off all of your impressive publishing credits; you can be candid and tell me about the extraordinary beta fish that inspired your story and how much you miss him; you can be cocky and I won’t even hold it against you if your writing is that good. Just give me a sense of what you’re all about and how you’re all about it before I begin to read your piece—and if your authentic voice comes through in your cover letter, I’ll almost certainly be eager to start reading. I don’t want to hear your job application voice; I want to hear you!
★ An effective little blurb about your piece can hook me in.
You don’t need to give away the twist that Tammy was actually Arthur’s long-lost Corgi the whole time, but one or two intriguing sentences about your piece can really work in your favor. For example: “In Christmas Eve at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, I ruminate on family, boat drinks, and the true meaning of Christmas”; “In these poems I deconstruct what it means to live with an elevator fetish in an inhibited, callous society.” Emphasize, succinctly, what makes your piece interesting or important.
★ It never hurts to close with a little “thank you for your time.”
At the end of the day, submitter, we’re both just people trying to do literature, and it’s not always easy. I’ve been on both sides of Submittable, and I know how exhausting it can be staying up all night to finish this thrice-damned, finicky story, even though you have a German final in the morning that du musst passieren. We appreciate all the hard work you put into your wonderful writing—The Offbeat would be nothing without you, of course! At the same time, we’re working hard reading all of your submissions, and we try to give proper attention to each and every one (even if that means staying up late, eating pepperoni pizza Lunchables in the middle of the night while scribbling comments about your brilliant dialogue and exquisite descriptions and thrilling endings to discuss with our peers tomorrow). It’s always nice to read closing comments like “I know you must be busy with submissions—thank you for thoughtful consideration!” or “I got a personal rejection letter from you guys last year; I appreciate your feedback and I hope you enjoy my new story. Thanks, always, for your time!” Remember to keep these comments in that same strong, individual voice you’ve built up to this point. These kind of comments work in exactly the opposite way as “to whom it may concern:” I’ll take these nice feelings with me as I begin to read your piece, and it’s always a plus when your editor’s in a good mood while they read your writing.
That’s all I got, guys. Looking forward to reading all of your terrific submissions (and cover letters) throughout the rest of the semester!