Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How Not to Write a Cover Letter, Part Two

If you’ve followed my last bit of advice for writing cover letters (be brief), then you’re probably well on your way to the second bit of advice:

Be Professional

The word professional is used in several ways—today, I’m using it in the “having a dignified, business-like bearing” sense. You may have seen many authors who like to have fun and joke around; and one of the reasons that you want to be a writer might be the prospect of having a profession that often feels more like play than work. But now is not the time for that.

Behind the scenes, most of your favorite authors are probably very professional. The ones who joke around with their editors and agents do so because they have an established working relationship or friendship with those people; they probably weren’t joking around with them when they began their careers. You don’t need to try to be funny or clever in your cover letter, you don’t need to put the editor at ease. Most agents and editors will be far more impressed by quiet professionalism than by bombastic humor or silliness.

Format your cover letter and manuscript professionally: We’ll discuss common manuscript formats another day (probably next week), but for now just remember that your letter should look business-like. Don’t use strange fonts; you don’t (usually) have to use Times New Roman or Courier, but you’ll never go wrong with them. Garamond, Cambria, and Georgia are some other good, professional, easily-readable fonts. Keep your text black and your font size and spacing normal (around size 11 or 12; 1.15 spacing for your cover letter and 2.0 spacing for your manuscript).

Follow submissions guidelines: Every editor and agent has slightly different preferences, and they’ll always make it clear what those preferences are. Find their submissions instructions (usually listed under “submissions” or “writers’ guidelines” on their website) and follow them with exactness. These guidelines will include instructions on where to send submissions, how to address them, how to format them, how many can be sent at once, and how long you should wait before sending them an inquiry about your manuscript. Editors and agents will always notice when you haven’t followed instructions, and it will never reflect well on you.

Don’t use gimmicks: In regards to manuscript submissions, a “gimmick” is any unusual little trick that new authors use in an attempt to “get noticed.” I have heard of (and received) many of these, including: formatting manuscripts in unusual fonts and colors; printing manuscripts on any color of paper but white; inserting messages to the editor into the body of your story; turning pages upside down; delivering manuscripts in person (possibly while dressed in cosplay); hand-writing cover letters or manuscripts (possibly with crayon); recording audio cover letters; attaching formal headshots of yourself; inserting illustrations into the story; and many, many more. These sort of gimmicks will stand out to editors and agents, but not in a good way.

Don’t use emoticons: Emoticons are fine for text messages, social media, and e-mails to someone you know well; but they have no place in a cover letter. Emoticons are the very antithesis of professional—social, silly, and overly familiar. Don’t use them.

A professionally-formatted cover letter and manuscript might seem boring to you, but that is good. Your goal here is not “to stand out from the crowd” or to “catch attention.” Your goal is to give an impression of competence, patience, and professionalism. Remember—the only thing that should stand out about your submission is the impressive quality of your story.

Part three of this series (be humble) is here.

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