The Importance of Cover Letters

This should be an Arnold Schwarzenegger moment. Everyone is dying and desperate, but then I arrive, and hope comes into their eyes. If I had arisen out of the chaos of my house and been able to at least clear my dining room table, maybe it would feel like that.  Instead, I moved four piles of clean clothes over, slapped my computer on top of a stack of papers, and reclined against some assemblage of my bathrobe, two shirts, and my husband’s pants from yesterday. (Way after I wrote this, I realized Arnold said, “I’ll be back,” not “I’m back.” I think I’ve only heard “I’m back” by some serial killer who’s about to hack someone to pieces.)

My life is chaos at the moment. Every room is filled with boxes in some stage of unpacking. A couple I just need to take out to the curb, but with the two day haul this past weekend and then not getting off work until 7 last night, my energy is in the skivvies.

Our new house is absolutely wonderful. My husband and I are both getting separate rooms: his for his sports collectibles, mine for writing. My husband is also kindly painting my writing room for me tomorrow while he’s off work. It currently is a rather obnoxious shade of pink-purple. While I wanted to pick “Dorian Gray” (it’s a real color, I promise!), I chose “Repose Gray” from Sherwin-Williams, which is a nice light gray. The house already has rooms painted green, blue, red, and khaki, so I wanted something a little different for my SPECIAL WRITING ROOM(!).

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After being out of touch with the writing life for a little bit, I decided to get back in the swing of things by reading for Fjords. I was reminded again of the importance of cover letters, and the importance of succinct and concise ones at that.

I follow a rather simple template:

“Dear Editors/Readers: (if I can find the name of the genre editor, I’ll list their name as “Mr./Ms ______” followed by “and Readers”)

Here are some new poems for your consideration. I really enjoyed _________’s and ________’s poems in your last issue. Keep up the good work!

All the best,

Tara Mae

Bio: Tara Mae Mulroy is a former Managing Editor of The Pinch and a graduate of the MFA program in Poetry at the University of Memphis. Her work is forthcoming in Third Coast and others. Her blog can be found at taramaemulroy.wordpress.com.

Included: Poem title 1; Poem title 2; Poem title 3Poem title 4; Poem title 5

These are simultaneous submissions.”

I actually started using this template after reading this post up on Gulf Coast‘s blog. What I like about it is that it’s short, shows I’ve read the journal before, and includes a short third-person bio, the names of the poems, and the fact that they are simultaneous submissions (if I’m submitting to a SS journal. If I’m submitting to a non-SS journal, it should not say this and that packet should also not be submitted anywhere else).

Things I’ve seen as an editor that you should never ever do:

-Cover letters with no bios. Even if you don’t have any publications or any experience in academia, state something as simple as, “John Doe currently pushes paper at a high-profile corporation. In his free time, he writes poetry. If accepted, this will be his first publication.” Some editors love publishing the work of new writers, so don’t be nervous about stating that.

-Cover letters with long explanations of how the author came up with the idea for/edited/bled over the poem(s)/story/essay. Writers love talking about their process, but unfortunately, an editor who has just read forty other submissions is probably not going to want to read yours. Don’t include it; save it for your writing group.

-Cover letters that include someone’s entire CV. Unless you’re applying for a job in academia, don’t include your CV. No literary journal editor or reader wants to wade through your 3-4 page CV. Just list your most relevant work/academic experiences and recent/forthcoming publications in a less-than-150-words bio. Endgame.

-Cover letters with half-page bios. Again, editors (or at least this one) value brevity. Shoot for 150 words or less.

-Cover letters that are addressed to the Managing Editor. Unless you personally know the Managing Editor for a specific journal, don’t address a submission to him/her. Address it to the genre editor.

-Cover letters that include profanity, such as saying, “John Doe is a M*****F****** poet from the Bronx.” I know sometimes that’s cool and all that, but you have no idea what sort of editors you are submitting your work too. They might be all prim and prude, and you never want to offend them from the get-go. I also discourage profanity when talking with an editor at ANY point in the writing process, and never, ever, EVER direct profanity at an editor. There is a special level of hell for people who do that; you don’t want to end up there.

Special cover letters:

When you receive an encouraging/personalized rejection letter from a specific or unidentified editor, SEND WORK BACK TO THEM ASAP, but also make sure to state that you received one in your cover letter. If they gave their name, address your submission to them. If no one was mentioned, address it to the genre editor and then state, “Thank you for the encouraging rejection letter I received for my last packet submitted on _______. Here are some new poems for your consideration…”

If you were solicited to submit work by a specific editor, say something like, “I was solicited to submit work by_________. Here are some poems…”

If you met/know someone who works on the journal, address your cover letter to the genre editor, but mention, “I had the pleasure of meeting so-and-so at_____. Here are some new poems…” As an editor, I like to know when someone I’ve met or know has submitted something to the journal, and I usually take the time to read it. I don’t know how other editors feel about this, but I think it’s cool to think, “Wow, I met this person and talked to them about the journal and here they are submitting!” On the other hand, me taking the time to read it won’t mean its chance of getting published is any higher than any other piece, but it could help start/build a relationship.

All of this is to say is that the business of writing is a professional one. In your cover letter and in your writerly interactions (e-mail, etc.), be kind, polite, and proper. Save your ferocity for your writing.

Submitting: How to do it properly

Submitting my work to journals always seems like declaring war on my writing. It takes a completely different brain set to read journals, get a sense of what they publish, see who takes simultaneous submissions and who doesn’t, edit work, print off work, write a bio, put in an envelope, address both the main envelope and the SASE, mail off, wait. A lot of times the submission process sucks me dry to the point that I don’t even want to look at another poem. I submitted yesterday to just 5 journals and I don’t feel like writing anything this morning (I could also blame this boggy Memphis rain).

Winter break of my first semester in my MFA program, I was so dead-set on getting my first publication that I submitted to every journal possible that accepted online submissions. I probably sent that first set of poems to over 50 journals. Lo and behold, I got a hit. My first poem published was in Touchstone, the literary journal of KSU. I hadn’t written much good that first semester (I think I was still reeling from the fact that I wasn’t the top dog in poetry class anymore), but I did write a fun poem about the first date I went on with my now husband. My husband had these eyebrows that were phenomenally huge. I had been friends with him for several months and had liked him for several of those, but on that first date, I couldn’t stop focusing on them. In the poem, I made them mythically huge, they “shadowed my coffee cup,”  and fought for territory of his forehead. Touchstone accepted that poem. A few months later, I convinced him to get them waxed.

After that first publication, I didn’t submit so insanely (I had never even heard of half of the journals I submitted to.), but I still wasn’t respectful when I submitted. I didn’t write cover letters, nor did I even look up the staff at a journal half the time. I again submitted to several journals, some of which had sent me nice rejection letters (the ones that said they wanted to keep seeing some of my work), others which I just thought I’d take a shot at. The Los Angeles Review liked one of my poems and helped me revise it, a big deal in the literary journal world. Working for a literary journal myself, we reject a lot more poems than ones we work with the poet to revise. A poem has to be just nearly there at least for me to consider taking the time to e-mail the poet and work with them.

Today, both working for a journal and submitting myself, I realize the importance of developing relationships. For a journal I really want to be published in, I write a personalized cover letter. I look up the staff, and I address it to the current poetry editor. If I know someone at the journal, I mention that. I try to make it clear that I’m not bombing the literary journal world, while also not bombing the literary journal world. I instead focus and try to be respectful.

Always notify the journals you submitted to that one of your poems has been accepted elsewhere. I did not do that with one of my poems, thinking, “Who else would want it?” and also because I hadn’t even kept records of what journals I had sent what poems to. Big literary faux-pas. Hard to recover from with that journal. Learn from my mistake: keep records of what poems you send where and notify them  immediately with the joyous news that some of your work was accepted elsewhere. This also isn’t so hard if you aren’t bombing the world with your submissions. Send to a few at a time. Keep records. When you hear back from all of them, send those same poems or another set out to other journals. Try submitting hard copy submissions to some while online submissions to others. We at The Pinch just started accepting online submissions, and it is a different ballgame. I prefer reading hard copy submissions, but the way of the world is online.

Don’t overrun a journal that has published you before or you really want to publish you with your submissions either. There is one writer or poet or essayist that has submitted to The Pinch at least twice a reading period for the now 3 years I’ve worked for the journal. He or she has even submitted during non-reading periods and repeatedly does not follow our submission guidelines. At The Pinch, as soon as we read his or her name on the submission, we start groaning. Do not become this writer or poet or essayist. Don’t try as hard as you can to make a journal hate you.

I see submitting to journals as similar to applying to colleges: You have your fall-back journals (which may not work out ever or rarely too), your reach journals, and your dream journals. Sometimes I have poems that I’m just in love with, that if they came in as a submission to The Pinch, I’d publish it in an instance, but those poems sometimes never get published, like they’re meant to stay with me. Other poems I’m okay with, they feel complete, but they’re not my favorites, and they get snatched up quickly. You never know. It’s always a shot in the dark. Good luck!