Cover letters are the resumes of the literary world. They offer a brief introduction of your writing career while also providing a pitch to the editor about why your submission is the best fit for the magazine, journal, or press.
When writing a cover letter, it’s important to think about your audience: the editor. They will be searching through hundreds—if not thousands—of submissions, and in the words of Aladdin: They will be looking for the “diamonds in the rough.” Depending on the size and staff of the magazine or press as well as how prestigious and reputable it is, the submission process will take them months to complete, so keeping the cover letter short, concise, and informative will ensure that your letter is considered and that it makes an impression with the editor.
Here are the steps to writing a strong cover letter that you can use as a template for any cover letter you need in your writing career.
Provide your contact information
At the upper left-hand corner of your document, type your residential address, your phone number, and your email. Make sure you check that it is accurate because, for magazines that don’t use Submittable, your contact information is the only way they can reach you.
Write the greeting and body
First, begin with the date. Next, write the salutation to the magazine, press, or publishing company. You can also address the poetry editor to personalize the greeting. Look at this template as an example of how to format it.
The next step is to write the body of the letter. In the above example, you’ll notice he mentions the names of his poems as well as previous poets the magazine has published. This proves to the magazine that you are an avid reader of their work. This isn’t necessary to include, but it does get you bonus points with the editor.
Depending on their guidelines, you might want to mention how many poems you’re sending. You can also mention that you are sending this to other publications and will alert them if it’s published anywhere else: This is an expectation every publication has for poets who are submitting simultaneously. Most magazines accept simultaneous submissions, but some don’t.
After this first paragraph, include a short biography in the second paragraph. This bio should be around five sentences. A short bio is better than a longer one due to the volume of submissions they receive. If they want a longer bio, they’ll let you know when they accept your work.
Also, for the bio, highlight your best-published work and major awards or prizes. If you haven’t received any yet, don’t worry about it: When a magazine is truly interested in your poetry, your work is the most important thing: not the cover letter.
Write the closing
Last but not least, close the letter with: “Thank you for considering my work. I look forward to hearing from you soon.” Then include your name at the end.
Overall, you just need three paragraphs for a typical cover letter. However, to submit your poetry book to literary presses, you’ll want to tailor the letter and make it longer, so you can give a synopsis of the work. In general, it’s usually best to keep the cover letter a page long. For large publishing companies such as Andrews McMeel Publishing, you’ll want to write a pitch or proposal rather than a cover letter.
Provide exactly what they want
Before you send out your letter, make sure you double-check the submission guidelines and then make a checklist of everything you need, or just scan the letter to make sure you provided exactly what they asked for. Sometimes your submission could be discarded just because you didn’t fulfill the requirements. For example, some literary presses want to “judge blindly,” which basically means they want to give judges the manuscripts and poems without any contact information or names of the poets. This ensures the submission process is fair, and that there are no biases based on gender, publication history, or many other factors that can cloud an editor or judge’s decision.
Tips to consider for literary magazines
Some literary magazines or presses care about credentials and past publication history. They want established poets rather than novice and up-and-coming poets, so for these magazines, a well-crafted cover letter can make a difference in receiving an acceptance rather than a rejection.
Thankfully, the majority of literary magazines are not concerned about past publication history: They are just interested in stellar literary work, so your chances of getting published are high even if you don’t have a history of publication credits. However, once they choose the best work, and they have their editorial meetings and are debating whose work will be printed, it’s possible they will consider your publication career, and that’s where they will take into consideration your cover letter.
I was the editor-in-chief for the literary magazine of the program where I received my MFA in creative writing, and I never cared about whether the writer was well-known or unknown: I just cared about the work, so let me assure you that if you send your poetry to a small literary magazine, your chances of being published increase. Most students of graduate and undergraduate literary presses and magazines are just looking for the best poetry and prose.
The purpose of submitting is to get your beautiful poetry into the hands of readers. No matter how large or how small the audience, sharing your work with the world is the reward and the joy of being published.