Monday, December 1, 2014

How Not to Write a Cover Letter, Part One

NaNoWriMo is over, which means that there are multitudes of writers out there with finished manuscripts that they’re itching to send out to potential publishers. With that in mind, I’m going to switch gears for a little bit here on the Story Polisher. The primary purpose of this blog is to highlight the many mistakes that novice (and not-so-novice) writers make, which collectively can render a manuscript unpublishable. Usually, I focus on errors in prose, because I believe that prose is the most important aspect of writing and simultaneously the most difficult to improve.

But for the next few weeks, I’m going to give advice on getting a manuscript ready for submission; on editing your story, formatting the manuscript, and writing a cover letter. After exhausting themselves to get a story completed, many writers just don’t have the energy or attention span to give these non-story elements of the trade sufficient effort. Conversely, many other writers give these elements far too much attention and end up over-doing things.

A few years ago, I wrote an editorial for Leading Edge Magazine titled How Not to Write a Cover Letter, in which I identified three major mistakes that novice writers make in their cover letters. The first, which we’ll go over today, is making a cover letter too long.

Keep it Brief

First, a definition: a cover letter is a brief note of introduction which the author attaches to their submission. The key word there is brief. No cover letter should ever be more than one page long—and note that this is a maximum limit, not a suggested length. Generally, your cover letter shouldn’t be longer than a paragraph or two.

The purpose of your cover letter is not to convince the editor to read your story. If you submitted the story, they will read it (or at least some of it). Your cover letter is just there to give them some basic information that can’t be conveyed through the story:

     Your name
     The title of your story
     The length of your story
     (Maybe) A (very) brief description of your story
     A list of your previous (professional or semi-professional) publishing credits
     (Maybe) A brief description of your education, training, or life experiences (. . . wait for it . . .) which relate to the story that you’ve submitted.

That’s it.

Many new writers tend to balk at how short their cover letter ends up being when they pare it down to these few things, especially if they don’t have any previous publishing credits to list. They feel like they need to pad it out somehow, give it some “substance.” Other writers seem to think that the cover letter is a chance to “wow” publishers, that they need to show off what an excellent writer they are right from the start. They pen long letters packed with fluff that’s supposed to show off their skills. In reality, it does just the opposite.

Here’s the thing: editors spend all day reading. Their desks or e-mail inboxes tend to be piled high with manuscripts of various lengths. The last thing they need is extra reading. If your cover letter seems extremely short to you, then that’s great! That is exactly what they want to see.
Pictured: An editor with a light workload.
On the other hand, if an editor pulls up a new submission only to find a wall of text between them and the story proper, that isn’t good. At the very least, they’ll be a little irritated. They would probably still read the story, but they definitely won’t waste their time on that big huge letter.

Here are some things I’ve seen in so very many cover letters which, without question, should not be in a cover letter:

Your personal bio: This is a manuscript submission, not a dating ad. I’m sure you’re a wonderful person, but that doesn’t matter. No editor cares who you are, where you’re from, or what your life is like. They don’t care if you like piƱa coladas, or what wacky antics your family gets up to, or where you went to school, or what you studied. You do not matter. All that matters is your story—if it’s good enough, they’ll publish it. If it’s not good enough, they won’t. Nothing you write about yourself can change that.

Stories about your story: Don’t share the entertaining or humorous story of where you got the idea for this story, or how it evolved over time. Don’t tell them you wrote if for NaNoWriMo or that you typed it all in one feverish night of inspiration. Behind-the-scenes features aren’t going to make your story more interesting.

Recommendations: Don’t tell the editor how so many of your friends or family enjoyed the story. It doesn’t matter if your professor thought it was magnificent or if your writing group thought this was the one that would get published. The only possible exception to this rule is if a respected, well-known author or other editor read and enjoyed the story and explicitly recommended that you send the story to this editor. If the author didn’t give you permission, then don’t try to name-drop them into your cover letter.

Non-professional publication credits: Much as I love this here blog of mine, I would not mention it in a cover letter (unless, perhaps, I were trying to publish a book on writing prose). Anyone can write a blog, so it isn’t much of an accomplishment to have done so. Self-published stories do not belong on your cover letter, whether they were posted on a blog or are for sale on Amazon. Being published by an amateur college publication doesn’t count, unless they’re at least semi-professional (i.e. they pay their authors at least some money). The exception to this rule is audience: if your blog is widely popular (several hundred hits a day at least) or you’ve sold thousands (note the plural) of copies of your self-published story, then that is worthy of note.

A long story synopsis: The shorter your story, the shorter the synopsis should be. A novel may be worth a full paragraph (check the submission guidelines, as some publishers specifically ask for one to three), while a short story shouldn’t get more than a sentence. Often, with a short story, you don’t need any description of the story at all.

Any of your life experiences that don’t strongly relate to the story: If your story is set in the heart of the Congo and you have had personal experience living in the Congo, then that is worth mentioning. If you lived in the Congo but that only faintly influences the story, then don’t bring it up. If you’re a practicing lawyer who has written a legal thriller, that’s worth mentioning. If there’s only one brief courtroom scene in the story, then that’s not very important.

You shouldn’t generally mention that you attended a writing workshop or took a class taught by a famous author unless the story that you’re submitting is one that you wrote in the workshop or class in question. Again, this is just name-dropping unless it’s actually pertinent to the story.

Mentions of other stories you’ve submitted: You might thank them for the time they gave to another story you submitted, but don’t say any more than that. (I’ll write more on this later.)

Here’s a sample of a cover letter I might write to an editor:

1st December, 2014

(Publisher/Publication Name)
(Publisher’s Listed Address)

Hello (Editor),

     Thank you for taking the time to review my (short story/novel), Most Excellent Story Name. It is about (insert appropriate-length pitch here), and is approximately (number) words long. I wrote it based on my experiences in (related life experience).

     (If applicable) Here are my past publishing credits:
     Story in Issue 21 of Magazine

     Thank you again for your time,

     Christopher Baxter

Remember: editors are busy. If you waste too much of their time with your cover letter, then they might not feel like giving any more of their time to your story. Brief is best.

Part two of this series (be professional) is here and part three (be humble) is here.

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