7 Tips for Writing a Professional Cover Letter

Studying_Scott_AckermanBy Cecilia Lewis

When submitting your work to a literary journal or publication, your cover letter can make a good first impression on the editor reading your work. In last week’s post on submitting to literary journals, I mentioned the importance of having a professional cover letter. But what is a professional cover letter, and what should it look like? Here are some tips on writing a cover letter that will make your submission look professional.

  1. Keep it brief.

The body of your cover letter should feature only a paragraph or two that includes the name of your piece, the word count, and possibly the genre. (If you’re submitting more than one work, include this information for every piece.) You might also include a brief bio of your relevant writing credits. And that’s it. You don’t need to get fancy here, or include any “attention grabbing” lines meant to make you stand out. The number one rule with cover letters: Keep it simple.

  1. Keep it professional in tone.

Think of your cover letter as a business correspondence. Address the editor by title and last name, like Dr. Jones or Ms. Smith. Don’t try to be too humorous with your letter, even if your work is. And don’t include overly personal information in your bio (see #6 for more on this). Think of your cover letter more like a job application, and keep it professional.

  1. Don’t include a summary.

Too often I see writers include lengthy descriptions of what their story is about. Unlike query letters, you don’t need to summarize your piece or include a pitch in your cover letter. Since literary journals feature short works, your submission will probably be read in full; there’s no need to summarize it or persuade an editor to read. State the title of your piece and leave it at that.

  1. Check for errors.

Spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors can make a bad impression, especially since a cover letter is so brief. The most common errors I see in cover letters are simple punctuation mistakes or typos that indicate the writer didn’t proofread thoroughly. Although I wouldn’t reject a piece simply for a typo in the cover letter, it does make me wonder whether the writer neglected to proofread their work as well as their cover letter. Multiple issues with punctuation or grammar in the cover letter are a sure sign that there will be similar issues in the piece, and that makes me reluctant before I even start reading.

  1. Follow the submission guidelines.

I discussed the importance of following the guidelines at length in my previous post, so suffice it to say that it’s incredibly important to follow each publication’s guidelines on cover letters. Many journals won’t mention specifics for cover letters at all, but if they do, make sure that you follow them.

  1. Include legitimate credits in your bio.

If you have any recent, relevant writing credits, be sure to mention them. This includes other publications that have featured your work recently or any writing awards you’ve won. You might also include other relevant qualifications (if, for example, your nonfiction essay is on mental illness and you’re a psychiatrist). Don’t include outdated credits (like awards you won in high school) or irrelevant ones (that are overly personal or don’t relate to writing). And don’t invent credits; we will check! If you don’t have anything to include, just leave the bio out.

  1. Address it to the right person.

As I mentioned in my previous post, it’s important to address your cover letter to the right person. It’s not always possible to know who will be reading your work, but try to include it wherever possible. Look at the staff information on the journal’s website. Some journals even include this information in their submission guidelines. This is a small detail, but it’s crucial in making a good impression before the editor even reads your work. I’ve seen submissions addressed to editors who hadn’t worked there in more than ten years or to people who had never worked there at all. This kinds of mistakes indicate that the writer hasn’t done their research.

And that’s it! Keep your cover letters short and simple, and you’ll make a great first impression on an editor before they read your work. Pair a professional cover letter with incredible work, and you’re on your way to publication!

Do you struggle with writing cover letters? Are there any tips I missed? Let me know in the comments!

Want a professional evaluation of your cover letter or submission before you send it out? Check out my critique services.

This post is part of my Submission Tips series. For information about submitting to publishing houses, literary agencies, and more, check out the other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts!

Related Links:

-8 Tips on Submitting to Literary Journals

-10 Tips for Writing a Query Letter

-10 Tips for Querying Agents


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