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What not to put in a cover letter

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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.

18 Comments

I have a cover-letter question not covered here. I've got a story out to a market that specifies "YA" in its guidelines. But "YA" is pretty broad these days. After much agonizing, I included a note in the cover letter saying "if you like this piece but some aspects of this story are not YA enough, I'm happy to revise with that in mind."

Any thoughts on cover letters that indicate flexibility on the author's part? Pointless? Annoying?

Just curious :)


Jed, I would actually amend one of your points--I don't think they should ever talk about their age in the cover letter. It doesn't add anything to the reading experience to know that the author is sixteen, you know?


Naomi: I have mixed feelings about cover letters indicating flexibility. On the one hand, I've written such a cover letter for a story of my own, and I sorta feel like they're probably a good idea in some situations. On the other hand, I find myself vaguely put off by them as an editor, for no reason I can really put my finger on. So alas, I'm not sure how to advise you. Anyone else have thoughts on this?

Susan: I agree that there's no need for an author of any age to mention their age in a cover letter. But it doesn't bother me nearly as much when an author does that if the author is unusually young or unusually old. (Mid-20s does not count as unusually young.) And I admit that I'm more likely to go out of my way to be encouraging to a 14-year-old author who's sending us the first story they've ever written than to an author of unspecified age who sends us the same story. (Similarly, if a 90-year-old sends us a story, I'm likely to be more flexible about computery stuff like formatting.) On the other other hand, knowing that the author is 14 going into the story may lower my expectations for the story somewhat, though I realize that's ageist of me.

Two addenda to this entry, while I'm here:

1. Having sent a manuscript to an agent or publisher for consideration isn't a credit per se, unless they asked you for it. When an author says in their cover letter that publisher X is considering their novel (without further elaboration), I tend to assume that means "I mailed it to them over the transom hoping they'll like it."

2. To some extent, all of this is irrelevant for me, 'cause more and more often I don't read cover letters 'til after I've read the story, due to too many authors summarizing their stories in cover letters.


Very good set of info. Bookmarking. I've see sooooo much discussion about what to and what not to put in cover letters. Thanks.


Excellent list, Jed. I'll be posting one of my own soon, from my experiences of anthology editing, and I'll definitely link to this.


Great list, Jed. The only two items I would not necessarily agree with are:

1) Don't specify the genre of the story. I believe it is the same kind of helpful shorthand as saying how many words the story is. If the story is a fantasy and the editor is overbought on fantasy and currently needs SF, I would think it saves them the reading time. I don't mind being rejected quickly for a logical reason.

2) I think it makes a lot of sense for young writers to say how old they are. When I was a teen I always mentioned my age in the cover letters, since I startted submitting stuff when I was around 12 and made my first pro sale at 17. In addition, some of my SASEs had to be explained because I had a huge long and particular college return address with a room number that changed every semester, and I had to tell the editor that I may not be at that room, etc, and please use an alternate addy.

Anyway, if it's any advantage in letting them know how old you are, I say go for it. Same thing if the person is over 80. :-) My opinion, of course.


I think my new favorite is "Don't suggest that although this looks like fiction, in some other universe it may be fact." I now feel sadly left out that I've never ever gotten that.


Hi,

Great advice. I'm just starting out (I'm 17) and I got my first rejection yesterday. Ha. Anyway, I was unsure about cover letters, and this helped immensly. Thanks a bunch.

Live long and prosper, Anthony.


Jed. Thanks for the advice. Unfortunately I just sent out three short stories with cover letters that include a one-sentence synopsis of the story. I thought the same principles applied here that apply with novels.

Does that guarantee rejection, by the way? Glad I read this website soon enough; I'm sending a new batch out this week, and I'll take out the summary sentence.


Vera (extremely belatedly--sorry not to reply sooner): The question of whether to specify genre may depend on the market. For SH, a fair bit of what we publish is ambiguous as to whether it's science fiction or fantasy; I like the uncertainty going into a story about what kind of world it's going to be, and I think authors should give clues in the story itself as to what reading conventions the reader should have in mind. Our readers aren't going to have the benefit of that genre label; I want my experience to be similar to that of a reader, at least in that regard.

As for age, I think the core question (which Susan alluded to) is what benefit the author will derive from giving their age. I suspect most editors are both (a) less likely to buy a story from a teenager, and (b) more likely to respond with encouragement and advice to a (promising) teenager. So I would say that if you(generic you, not Vera) are a teenager and want your work to be judged against the work of adults, you shouldn't specify your age. But I could be just projecting my own biases.

Matthew: I'm sure it won't be a problem--nothing guarantees rejection. Just about anything nonstandard that an author can think of to do with a submission, you can be pretty sure that the editor will have seen it plenty of times before. They might roll their eyes, they might be a little annoyed, but they're unlikely to reject immediately. The downside of all the what-not-to-do advice that's available to new writers these days is that it tends to make writers terrified of making a mistake that will cause an editor to not even read the story. My impression is that that kind of mistake is much rarer than most new writers think it is.

Well, okay, I actually don't know other editors' policies on this--it's possible that if they read the synopsis and it doesn't sound interesting, they'll reject the story. (This is another reason not to include a synopsis--it's incredibly hard to write a brief synopsis that will make someone want to read your story, and very easy to write a brief synopsis that will make your story sound just like a hundred other stories.) But me, if I see a synopsis, I skip past it, and sigh, and continue on with the story. And I suspect a lot of other editors do the same. Certainly they won't reject your story just because of the fact that the cover letter contains a synopsis; at worst, they'll read and judge the synopsis.

And actually, these days I almost never read a cover letter before reading the story, so it's not so much of an issue for me any more.

...While I'm here (unrelated to anything Matthew wrote), here's one more addendum to the list of things that don't count as credits: stories that you (generic you, not Matthew) are currently writing. For example, I've seen a few cases where authors have listed, among their credits, unfinished novels; unfortunately, having started writing a novel just doesn't count as a credit. A credit is an indication that someone with some experience in the field thinks your work is good.


Hey Jed- your advice was very helpful, but I still have a few questions.

If you're in high school and have not had anything published, but you have won writing contests, should you mention that in your cover letter? I am planning on submitting to a literary magazine but am unsure of what to add for my credentials.

Also, if the literary magazine asks for your address, how would you incorporate that into the cover letter? Would you list it on its own or weave it into different sentences to create its own paragraph?


Hi, Lara -- yep, winning a writing contest is a credit. How much of a credit it is depends on how prestigious the contest is and who the author and editor are. If you won a 4th-grade essay contest, and you're submitting to a venue where your work is being judged against work by adult professional authors, then I wouldn't mention that contest in your credits. If you won a fiction-writing contest that the editors are likely to have heard of and respect, then you should definitely mention it in your cover letter (assuming you don't have substantial publishing credits per se). For contests in between those two extremes, you'll have to use your own judgment.

Just remember that the entire point of mentioning your credits in the cover letter is to make the editors want to read and pay attention to your story. If a given credit is likely to make the editor think "This writer has been judged to write well, by someone who knows what they're talking about" then list it; if not, don't bother.

As for address: in many business-letter formats, you list your own address near the top left of the page, along with the address of the person you're writing to. Search online for business letter formats, or guides to writing business letters. Your word processor may also provide a business-letter form or two. If you're using a format that doesn't put your address at the top, then you can say "My address is:" or "As requested, here's my address:" and then your address (I personally would then put my address on multiple lines, just like on an envelope). Definitely don't try to somehow weave your address into multiple different sentences. They asked for your address, so they'll be expecting an address in an easily readable format. Don't worry about being fancy or clever or impressing them with your writing here -- it's just an address. Make it clear and easy to find on the page and easy to read. If in doubt about details, you can probably drop the magazine a note and ask them.


Very good set of information. Bookmarks. I've seen sooooo many discussions about what and what not to cover letters. Thank you. :) :)

[This comment was spam, but I allowed it anyway, after deleting the URL, because at least it was on-topic. —Jed]


just wondering what the reasoning is behind not labeling your story with what genre it is in the cover letter. or have i answered my own question?


Hi, Anonymous--for further discussion of the genre-labeling issue, see the comment from Vera earlier on the page, and my response to that comment. Short version: if the magazine publishes more than one genre, then the readers won't know the genre going into the story, so the editor may not want to know it either.


Hi Jed ~
As others have said, thank you for this information! I'll be sharing it with my writing group. Here is my scenario: I published a short story with a magazine that folded after only two issues. My story was supposedly put out there in cyberspace, someplace, but I have no idea how many people may have seen it. I include the name of the magazine and the issue & vol. number in the cover letter when I submit for reprints, because I want to be accurate and forthcoming. Does this hurt my chances of getting the story reprinted, since you recommend not mentioning "sales to non-paying markets that aren't widely known or respected."
Thank you.


Hi, hunt2020—sorry that your comment got held in moderation.

When you're offering a story for reprinting, you definitely need to give some information about where it previously appeared. When I said not to mention sales to low-prestige venues, I was talking about sales of stories other than the one that the cover letter is for.

That said, you probably don't need to give exact details even in the cover letter for a reprint. You could probably say something like "This story was previously published by a small online magazine that stopped publishing shortly thereafter, so the story probably hasn't been seen by many people"; that's more important/relevant than the exact name and issue number of the magazine, and the editor can ask for more details if they want them.

But I should note that I'm not an authority on reprints. Every editor has somewhat different ideas about reprints. I imagine in most cases it can't hurt to mention the specifics of where the reprint appeared before.

PS: If you're not sure whether your story is still out there online, you should probably do a web search for an unusual phrase from the story (put the phrase in quotation marks to search for that exact phrase) and see if you can find it.


It seems to me like there is almost no point in writing a cover letter. My job isn't relevant to my fiction; I don't have a wonderful publication history (which I think should not be relevant anyway, but clearly it is). All there is to say is, please consider my story, it's x number of words.


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