Over the past three years, we've received a lot of submissions, and a lot of cover letters. After reading these, there's some things I want to say about them.
Let's get one thing straight right from the start: There is very little you can say in your cover letter that will improve your chances of having your story accepted.
This is an important thing to understand. For short story submissions, the cover letter exists to convey specific pieces of information that the editor wants to see. It is not a sales pitch. In the case of Unlikely Story, we want to see the following: your name; your story's title; the word count; if it's a reprint where and when it was first published. This is so that we can populate our spreadsheet when your submission comes in without having to first download your story, then open it in a Word or equivalent, just to find out the title or word count. We don't mind a short bio - one or maybe 2 sentences - simply because if we like your work, we may want to look to see what else you've done, if we have time for pleasure reading. If we've met somewhere, it doesn't hurt to include something like, "It was a pleasure meeting you at Balticon last year," or something like that. And that's it. Last month I met the editors of another online zine, and they said "we mark that field in the submission form optional because we don't want to see cover letters." Why? Because their online form already gathers all the info they need, and anything you say in addition to that is either of neutral value, or will actually harm your chances.
So here's an even baker's dozen of Don'ts when it comes to cover letters:
- Don't get the salutation wrong. That's disrespectful. Get the names right. Get the honorifics right. If you're unclear on what the right honorific is, use full names. Alternately, go generic. I typically use "Greetings," as my salutation, as it applies equally to junior and senior editors, and to slush readers. (There are some editors who dislike the generic salutation.)
- Don't only address the male editor(s). I can't tell you how often this happens.
- Don't be overly casual, unless you know the editor personally.
- Don't be rude.
- Don't be unprofessional.
- Don't NOT provide the specific information requested in the submission guidelines.
- Don't give us your complete multi-volume autobiography.
- Don't give us your complete bibliography of every story you've ever had published or self-published in the history of your complete autobiography.
- Don't I repeat DO NOT summarize your story in the cover letter. If we can't figure out what your story is about by reading your story, we probably don't want it; when you tell us in advance what to expect, we can no longer look at the story objectively, and it's points off.
- For the love of everything anyone has ever held sacred (including Pete), DO NOT tell us how we are going to feel about your story.
- Corollary to #10, don't tell us how your story is going to catapult our magazine to fame and glory.
- Don't tell us how stupid and blind to great art all the other editors who rejected your story in the past are, or even that it has been sent out before and been rejected.
- Don't ignore the posted submission guidelines for the market you are submitting to, even (especially) if they contradict anything I've said in this post.
There are a couple things that you CAN do:
- Include a brief bio of 1-2 sentences, mentioning the most prestigious markets you've sold to to date.
- Be comfortable with the fact that you haven't sold anything yet - as my karate instructor told me, long ago: "We all start at white belt." Being previously unpublished will not hurt your chances of selling a story. In fact, most editors are very happy when they get to be the first one to publish someone who shows real potential.
- Especially if you're a new writer, do not be shy about asking for feedback. (DON'T DO THIS IF YOU DO NOT RESPOND WELL TO FEEDBACK YOU DON'T LIKE!) You won't necessarily get feedback (and don't be offended if you don't - there are legitimate reasons why an editor might not provide feedback), but sometimes you will, and that advice can be invaluable. When I first started submitting work, I'd include something like, "As a relatively new writer trying to improve my craft, any feedback is appreciated." The first story I ever submitted was rejected with a couple lines of feedback, which helped me fix the story and sell it elsewhere; same happened with another story, which went on to become my first professional sale.