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(!).


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

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.

Some reasons why that fancy literary journal has yet to respond to your submission in a timely manner

  1. they’re super busy and haven’t gotten around to it yet
  2. they like it a lot and are really considering publishing it, but these sort of decisions require bureaucratic red tape, unused colostomy bags, and a plethora of deodorant. Finding these things in bulk always causes problems.
  3. they got to it, but are holding onto it because they like to pass it between each other and laugh. You may not ever receive a response.
  4. they have mailed it to the president to have a national holiday named in your honor, but with all of the election hubbub going on, they are waiting until after November to see who will be the one declaring it. If it’s Romney, no holiday in your honor will be declared; in actuality, one called the “13% day” will be declared instead, in which all people are encouraged to donate 13% of their income to those upper-class individuals struggling to make ends meet on less than $350,000 a year. If it’s Obama, he’ll declare a holiday for you, but make a speech suggesting we all celebrate “in as mediocre a way as possible.”
  5. their office, staff, and submissions (and/or submissions manager) burst into flame last weekend, and since the general public doesn’t care about the state of literary journals, no one was notified. If this is the case, we’re sorry to say your submission will be published never.
  6. they ran out of toilet tissue.
  7. all journals are terrified of the number 7.

Why you should submit to literary contests

After Calyx threw their two-cents in, I decided to throw in mine as well.

As a writer and teacher, my money is in short supply. I submit to literary journals for a love of contributor copies and a blind, finger-crossing hope that someone might pay me as well. I, of course, don’t live off my writing. I teach to pay my rent. I write to stay sane. I submit because what I ultimately want to do in life is write.

Contests, with their $15 and $20 reading fees, seem like an extravagance. I, for one, have submitted to seven contests in my life, five that had reading fees. I’ve won none of them and only been a semifinalist for one.

Why should you ever submit to literary contests?

  • You could win AND/OR get published. We all submit our work to journals with the wild hope that we’ll be accepted. We can submit to contests with the same abandon. We can have confidence enough in our writing to believe that it’s worth sending out. For The Pinch‘s literary contest, if you are a first place winner in your genre, your work will be published in an upcoming issue. If you are a second or third place winner, your work might be. Also, all work submitted (even if you don’t win) is considered for publication. So, you could win and, even if you don’t, you could get published. Stu Dearnley, the third place fiction winner of the 2011 Pinch contest, got his first ever publication from winning a contest. We have also published work from other contestants that did not win.
  • You could receive critical attention from a great poet/writer/essayist. In terms of The Pinch‘s literary contest, all of the entries are read by the staff and then we, as a staff, decide which ten or fifteen finalists to send onto the bigwig genre judge. If someone on our staff really likes your work, your work might get published or you might get solicited to send us more work. If you are one of the lucky finalists (as in, we, as a staff, decide to send your work onto the bigwig), your work will receive personal attention from that bigwig. If you are selected as a (first, second, or third place) winner, he or she will know your name and write something special about your work. An amazing poet writing something amazing about a poem of mine would be…amazing.
  • You could win $$$. Many contests boast a wonderful $1000 or $1500 prize. That could help with attending a residency, submitting journals that ask for a $3 reading fee with each submission, or sending that manuscript out.
  • Your reading fee helps support the journal that hosts the contest. This point is really important. Since I’ve managed a literary journal, I know firsthand how important these contests can be for ensuring a journal can produce future issues, purchase merchandise to sell, host release parties, host readings, etc. Every year, The Pinch contest is its lifeblood to ensuring we can keep producing a great product, as well as hosting great events for our dedicated admirers to attend.
  • You get something. You more often than not receive at least one issue of the journal, and many times, you receive two issues, a full year of a journal you already adore!

I realize many of us writers aren’t rolling in money (unless we a.) won the lottery or inherited a lot of money, b.) have a fancy job, or c.)   married up), but by submitting to contests, you are not only taking your writing seriously, but also supporting the journals that help keep what we love so much alive and well.

Being a woman editor

After my earlier post about being a woman poet, I thought about my role as a woman editor.

Vida tirelessly counts the rates of publication between men and women in some of the most prestigious literary venues. Their 2011 count, located here, shows a huge disparity. Regardless of the potential reasons (“women write less,” “women submit less,” “women don’t write as well as men,” “editors purposefully choose work from more men than women”), the numbers are startling.

For the Spring 2012 issue of The Pinch which I was Managing Editor for, we published poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction from fourteen women and fifteen men. We published twenty-three pieces from women and seventeen pieces from men (this includes if we accepted two or more poems, fiction stories, or creative nonfiction essays from one writer). Of the art and photography we accepted, all were from men.

Of the ten major editor positions for the staff at the time (fall 2011), six were held by women (editor-in-chief, managing editor, assistant managing editor, senior fiction editor, fiction editor, and creative nonfiction editor). The strongest positions in the journal (editor-in-chief, managing and assistant managing editor) were all held by women. While we never looked at or discussed a work on the basis of the gender of its author, we did publish work from nearly as many women as men, and that somehow must be connected to the fact that many of us were and are strong women writers ourselves.

Other journals circumvent the subjective world of publishing by having only women editors and accepting work from only women writers. Many are listed here, and Southern Women’s Review should be included on that list as well. I have mixed feelings about “women” journals mostly because they are undervalued and underappreciated. No women’s-only journal has the same prestige as The New Yorker.

What are your thoughts?