Friday, December 5, 2014

How Not to Write a Cover Letter, Part Three

We’ve previously gone over two bits of advice regarding the writing of cover letters (be brief and be professional). Today we come to the final—and possibly the most important—piece of advice.

Be Humble

Almost every artist in existence possesses a bizarre mix of crippling insecurity and towering arrogance. We pass from periods of sweeping confidence where we’re positive that our current projects are amazing and groundbreaking to periods of horrible fear where we’re completely convinced that those same projects are pathetic, derivative, and completely unlikeable. Back and forth, back and forth, from the child in need of constant reassurance to the prima donna.

It’s not a bad thing. Periods of insecurity cause us to second-guess our assumptions, to look at our work with a close eye and chip away every imperfection we can find. They improve our art. On the other hand, we would probably never submit our work anywhere, never let it into the public eye, without that helpful, forward-pushing arrogance. But just make sure that the prima donna isn’t in charge when you’re writing your cover letter. 

There are few editorial turn-offs stronger than an arrogant cover letter. Every editor and agent has had the experience of working with an author who doesn’t want to accept any editorial input to their story, who already thinks that their story is perfect and grows angry when anyone has the gall to suggest otherwise. It is not pleasant to work with these people. If your cover letter gives off strong signs that you might be that type of author, editors and agents will drop that manuscript like it was poison and back away slowly.

Here’s a pair of harsh truths that none of us should ever forget: when it comes to publishing, we are not special and no one needs us. Every professional magazine, book publisher, and agent out there receives hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands of submissions and queries every year. Of those, they choose a mere fraction—probably one percent or less—to move forward with.

What this all means is that there are mountains of good submissions that get rejected every year. Submissions that are just as good as yours or better—don’t try to fool yourself that your work is some sort of godsend. I have personally rejected great stories in favor of slightly weaker stories, simply because the author of the better story seemed like they would be a nightmare to work with. A weaker story can always be made stronger, as long as the author is willing to work with the editing staff.

Don’t be that author! I don’t say all of this to demoralize—your work is probably pretty good, and if you persist and always continue to improve, you’ll probably make it to the top of that mountain someday. But don’t let your pride knock you back down when you get there.

Here are some specific things to avoid in your cover letter:

Don’t talk about how amazing your story is: It’s not your job to tell an editor or agent that your work is good—they’ll decide that for themselves. If you talk up your story so arrogantly and then it turns out not to be good, you’ll just look like an idiot. And the editor will probably remember that when you submit again.

Don’t complain about past rejections: Perhaps this editor has rejected something that you wrote, something that you believe is excellent and was not given a fair shot. Too bad. Don’t mention it in your cover letter (or anywhere else). Everyone gets rejected. No editor or agent is going to change their mind because you explained to them why they were wrong, especially if you’re insulting about it. Which is our next point:

Don’t insult the editor, the agent, or their staff: This should be a no-brainer, but you’d be amazed how often this happens. Usually it’s in regards to old submissions—a passive-aggressive statement like, “It’s all right that you rejected my last submission. I’ll just have to find someone who can understand it.” Other times it will be not-so-subtle digs at the stories that were chosen over theirs, rude comments about the publication or company, or even aspersions on the personal character of the editor or agent. Protip: no one is subtle. You’re not going to be able to hide insults—someone will always pick up on it. Just don’t put it in!

Don’t try to “sweeten the deal”: This is not a sales pitch. Don’t try to convince the editor or agent that your story is going to bring in tons of new readers (it probably won’t). Don’t tell them how well it will sell (they probably know better than you). Don’t tell them that God instructed you to write this book and will bless them if they publish you (not gonna help). There is only one thing that you can write that will convince them to publish you: a good story.

Now, you might be tempted to point out to me that many authors are quite arrogant, and they’re doing just fine. Yes, it happens. But most of them became arrogant because of their success, not before. Prime donne are tolerated because they have clear talent and selling power. If your talents are primarily of the as-yet-unrecognized variety, then no one will have reason to tolerate you if you act like a prima donna. And even successful authors can be dethroned by their arrogance. 

On the other hand, you may have been insulted by an editor that you feel was arrogant. Yeah, it happens. Sorry. Too bad. Don’t try to get revenge or give them comeuppance. It won’t work. Just move on.

Remember—your work is not one-in-a-million, it is one of a million. The competition to get published is already difficult enough without sabotaging yourself. Be humble, be polite, and you’ll do well.


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