We've been getting a lot of submissions lately that have detailed summaries and/or discussions of the story in the cover letter. I was going to just post a note saying "Don't do that," but then it occurred to me I could dust off the cover letter entry I wrote a couple months ago but never got around to posting.
My usual disclaimer: if you recognize yourself in the following, don't worry too much about it. Everyone makes mistakes; just do better in the future. (And you almost certainly weren't the only one to do it.) The goal here isn't to make anyone feel bad, but to improve things. Also, I'm not perfect, and most of my editorial experience has been with one publication that does some things kinda oddly, so it's possible that others will disagree with some of the following advice.
The following list provides some basic advice about what not to do when submitting a work of short fiction to an sf magazine, and particularly what not to put in cover letters. I would guess that most of you reading this are way beyond the point of needing this advice; y'all can congratulate yourselves on not doing these things. But if you know any writers who are just starting out and aren't sure what to do with a cover letter, feel free to point 'em to this.
There are many fine explanations available online of what should be in a cover letter. (See in particular the SFWA FAQ, part one and part two.) The basic idea is that if you include a cover letter at all (you don't have to, unless the guidelines request one), you should give the title of the story you're submitting, and you should mention any relevant credits you might have. ("Credits" can include such things as participation in respected workshops or membership in respected professional organizations, though editors' reactions to such credits may differ.) And that's usually all. (There are definitely other things you should mention in certain circumstances, such as letting the editor know that the story has been published previously elsewhere, if it has.)
A general rule to keep in mind: the shorter the cover letter, the less chance you'll make embarrassing mistakes in it. Be brief, be polite, be accurate, and follow the publication's guidelines.
The following list focuses on specific things you shouldn't do. Note that this list applies only to short fiction (the rules for novels are different) and only to speculative fiction (I don't know enough about nonfiction, literary fiction, horror, or other genres to give good advice).
- Don't query before submitting short fiction to an sf magazine, unless there's something specific about the story that makes it fall outside the stated guidelines.
- If you do query, don't provide a synopsis of your story. (Again, the rules are different for novels etc.)
- If you're not certain of your ability to write a grammatical English sentence using correct spelling and punctuation, ask a friend who's good at editing to read your story (and your cover letter) before you submit.
- Don't submit incomplete or partial stories.
- Don't post your stories in publicly readable places on the web, including publicly readable online journals. (Most editors consider such posting to count as publishing.) Don't ask editors to go read your story on the web.
- If you are addressing an editor by name in your cover letter, make sure that you're using the right editor's name, spelled correctly. If you include the name of the magazine you're submitting to in your cover letter, make sure you're using the right magazine name, spelled correctly.
- Send the story to the correct address, whether papermail or email.
- In your cover letter, don't talk about previous rejections that this story has received (except possibly in the context of "[well-known editor X] recommended that I send this to you"). Definitely don't talk about what other editors didn't like about it.
- Don't (for short fiction) try to sell the story in the cover letter. Specifically:
- Don't describe the plot, theme, or characters of the story in the cover letter. Don't describe the message of the story or what happens at the end.
- Don't use advertising-style tag lines in the cover letter. (In particular, never describe your story as "unique," and don't compare your work to that of great writers, and don't pose a question to which the story is meant to be the answer—"Can an ancient evil vampire truly find happiness with a ditzy beach bunny?")
- Don't discuss whether the story is or isn't politically incorrect.
- Don't praise your own characters or writing.
- Don't attempt to explain your intentions or the origin of the story or why various implausible elements aren't really implausible. Remember that if the story is published, readers won't see the cover letter; they'll see only the story. Make sure the story works even for someone who hasn't read the cover letter.
- Don't make negative comments about yourself; in particular, don't (even jokingly) describe yourself as insane.
- Don't make negative comments about your story (or about its title). I totally understand the impulse to do so, and I know that doing so can help lessen the sting of rejection, but it also increases the likelihood of rejection. Why should an editor read a story that the author expresses a lack of confidence in? In particular, never say that you expect the story to be rejected (or even that you don't care whether it's accepted or not), and never indicate that you think you might be wasting the editor's time with your submission. (Related side note: if the editor rejects the story, even if they reject it harshly, don't write to them to apologize for wasting their time with it.)
- Don't mention in your cover letter what your day job is, unless it's relevant to the story. If you're a teacher, professor, or graduate student in English or Creative Writing, and if you decide to mention that fact in your cover letter, be extra-careful to use good grammar, spelling, and punctuation in your cover letter.
- If submitting via email, don't say that the manuscript is disposable and that you're including a SASE.
- Don't be goofy, silly, wacky, or jokey in your cover letter, unless you know the editor personally or have corresponded with them in the past.
- If you don't normally write this kind of story, don't say so in your cover letter. (Also, be sure you've read enough of this kind of story to know you're not covering familiar ground.)
- Read the magazine's submission guidelines carefully before submitting. Don't rely on abridged guidelines that you see in market listings or other sources; get the guidelines directly from the magazine.
- Regarding other writing of yours that has been published:
- Don't mention previous publications the editor won't see as positive things. For example, don't mention: your self-published novel; nonfiction articles on topics unrelated to the story; letters to the editor published in newspapers; sales to non-paying markets that aren't widely known or respected.
- Don't list more than four or five previous publications in a cover letter.
- When mentioning previous publications, don't specify how much you were paid for them.
- When mentioning previous publications, be careful to spell the names of the venues in which they appeared correctly.
- There's no need to tell the editor that you believe your story is well-suited to their publication; that belief is more or less implicit in the fact that you're submitting it, and in my experience stories that come with that comment in the cover letter often aren't very well-suited to our publication. Similarly, there's generally no need to tell the editor that you've followed their guidelines, or that the story is not a simultaneous submission and hasn't been published elsewhere—it's not bad to mention such facts, but it's also not necessary. (Special case: if you've tried to follow the formatting guidelines but you're a little uncertain that you succeeded, it's okay to say that—but if you're uncertain about the guidelines, generally better to query ahead of time than to submit and guess.)
- Always read your cover letter carefully before sending it, to make sure there aren't any really embarrassing or obviously stupid mistakes in it. If you make a last-minute change to it, read the whole thing carefully again to make sure your change didn't introduce mistakes.
- Don't insult a group of people or a belief in your cover letter. (For example, don't say nasty things about religion—are you sure the editor or their spouse or best friend isn't religious?)
- If you discover shortly after submitting that you submitted a version with a bunch of mistakes in it, and you then submit a corrected version of the story, be extra-careful not to make mistakes in the cover letter saying that this is a corrected version.
- Don't tell the editor that you haven't read their magazine.
- Don't claim to have met the editor your cover letter is addressed to, if who you really met was another editor associated with the same publication.
- Don't misspell your own name.
- Don't brag about your own accomplishments—especially if they're not all that impressive. (Made-up example: "I'm extremely proud to be the recipient of at least two awards, including the 1973 Horace Newman Award for Excellence in High-School Basket-Weaving.")
- If you're between the ages of, say, 20 and 80, don't mention your age in your cover letter. (And don't refer to yourself as young if the editor you're submitting to is younger than you are.)
- Don't say "Let me know when this appears in your magazine."
- Don't specify the rights that you're offering. (There's a great deal of disagreement over this advice. For example, Mary Soon Lee's excellent info on cover letters recommends specifying rights offered. But SFWA's FAQ recommends not doing so, and it always seems odd to me when authors do it. We buy particular rights (which aren't FNASR, btw); if the rights offered aren't those rights, should we just reject the story without reading it?)
- Don't specify the genre of the story. (Unless the guidelines say to do so.) Especially if the genre of the story is one that the guidelines say the editors aren't interested in.
- Be wary of using metaphors in your cover letter.
- Don't tell the editor that you feel driven to write, or that the characters seemed to have a mind of their own, or that the story just flowed out of you as if it came from somewhere else. Don't suggest that although this looks like fiction, in some other universe it may be fact.
- Unless you're submitting to a children's market or the guidelines indicate that the editor doesn't like profanity, don't mention in the cover letter that the story includes profanity. (Same goes for sex or "adult content," but I see this most often with profanity.)
- Don't put a copyright notice or a copyright date on your story, especially if the copyright date is several years in the past. (See Chuck Rothman's Copyrights and Meteorites for more info.)
- Never tell an editor that your submission is a first draft.