Preparing for Submission Season, Part III: Cover Letters and Bios

So you’ve written a great story or poem and you’re ready to send it out into the world for publication. Great! We’ve spent the last two entries talking about how to format your submission and general pointers at playing the publication game. The last piece, though, is about representing yourself.While there are debates about the relevancy of cover letters in a literary marketplace that is increasingly moving toward electronic submissions, it’s still an important and practical part of your submission packet. Is an editor necessarily going to read EVERY word of EVERY cover letter? Absolutely not. But here are a few things that an editor will look for, if not on first impression, then at some point down the line. These are, minimally:

  • A brief bio. If your submission is accepted for publication, it’s very likely that you’ll be asked to supply a bio for your contributor’s note in the journal. If you don’t happen to get the message, or something catastrophic happens, this boilerplate one from your cover letter can be inserted.
  • Contact information. In a case of online submissions, this isn’t necessarily the first place we’ll look for an author’s information. That said, it’s better for everyone involved if you make it very clear where an editor can get in touch with you if necessary. And postal mail isn’t the best way, by a long shot.
  • Publication history. More than the other two, this one is up for contention. Personally, I’m more interested in reading what has been sent to me than about where the author has published previously. I’m more interested in a good submission than a good name. That said, this is information that would likely be in your contributor’s note, and it might win you some additional consideration or excitement if you’ve got some good publications under your belt. It is not, however, everything.

So how do you write a good cover letter?

Start by greeting the editor. Check out the journal’s website, see if you can find the name of the genre editor. Keep in mind, though, that this is not always up-to-date or accurate. You might be addressing the right name, but that doesn’t mean that the explicit addressee is going to be the first to see it. Your submission could first be seen by another member of staff, an assistant genre editor, or an intern. Depending on the journal’s reading process, it could be that the addressee never sees your submission.

I don’t say that to disparage the processes that some of my editorial colleagues have in place, but rather as a defense for “Dear Editor.” Is it less personable? Sure. Does it scream “I don’t know anything about this magazine?” No. Will the editor make a big deal that you don’t know their name? They shouldn’t. At a lot of journals, staff changes are frequent, especially those housed within universities. Students come and go. Instructors come and go. I get the perception from some writers that they think publishing is all about ego, but it isn’t. An editor isn’t going to reject you because you didn’t mention them in your cover letter. You should still get the magazine name right, but if you address your submission to someone that’s recently left, it’s no big deal.

Keep it brief: Get in and get out. I’ve read the bad advice about how you should start by telling the editor about something in a recent issue you enjoyed, and if you genuinely mean it, that’s fine. The thing is, though, in a cover letter, when you’re sending a potential submission, that can feel schmaltzy. If you mean it and are really struck by something enough to submit your own work, that’s fantastic. Mention that, but don’t dwell on it.

 “Please find enclosed, “My Rocking Submission,” a short story/series of poems/essay for your consideration in Facemelting Literary Review.”

 See how easy that was? Now, let’s get out. Time for a choose your own adventure bio, ready? Let’s build one together.

Start with your name, and then add format A, B, or C.

  1. received a(n) [your degree here] in [your subject here] from [your school here]. His/Her work has appeared in [insert any publications you have here, if none, consider skipping this sentence]. He/She lives in [your city here], where [something brief, but awesome about what you do].
  2. ‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in [some awesome journal names here would be nice. I’ll admit Facemelting Literary Review is probably attention-grabbing]. He/She received [your degree here] from [your institution here] and is/was the recepient of [any awards you’ve won RECENTLY here]. He/She lives in [awesome city here].
  3. is a writer interested in the [your artistic focus here]. Recent publications include [really, if you can think of a better journal name than FLR, let us know in the comments]. He/She lives in [SimCity], where he/she [action phrase here about your day job].

And, boom, bio by numbers—er, letters, I guess. Really, the point is to not keep your bio too long. Shoot for around fifty to a hundred words. Check out a copy of the issue and compare your length to the recent contributors’ notes.

Some things you should never, ever do.

 Lie about where you’ve published. If you say that you’ve published work with The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and The Georgia Review, the editor has ways of figuring out whether that’s true or not pretty quickly.

Name your pets in your cover letter/bio. Unless your cat is a damn good editor and gave you thorough notes on your submission, I’m probably going to cut this line out.

Send a complete CV with your submission. It’s not going to be read. This is about your submission, not your career.

Share your complete career history in your cover letter. See note on the CV.

Include a photograph of yourself. Unless you were asked to do so, this is unnecessary. That said, if you’re trying to give the editor a laugh, we’ve all seen some terribly awkward/funny author photos in our day.

Be overly quirky. Quirky is fun, but we’re seriously more interested with your work than with your quirkiness. We might appreciate some nice stationery, but remember, we’re publishing your work, not your quirk.

With your cover letter done, it’s time to stick your submission in the mail. Though this completes our three-part series on preparation for submission season, the fun isn’t over! Be sure to check out our post about dealing with rejection and acceptance, complete with advice on when you should query and how to, if necessary, withdraw a submission.

August 1st is so close! Are you ready?


About zachtarvin

Zach Tarvin is an editor, writer, occasional designer, and all-around techie based in Chicago. He's currently an MFA-candidate at Roosevelt University where he is the editor of Oyez Review.
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