Thursday, May 10, 2012

On Cover Letters

First of all, Happy almost Mother's Day to my mom! I don't have any writing related stories to share about her, but she's always been my number one fan, and 100 percent supportive of me and my writing. Love you, Mom.

Okay, on to cover letters.

There's quite a bit of guidance out there about stories and perfecting technique, but somewhat less about tips for submitting your stories. And since I'm a slush editor for Flash Fiction Online, this topic is constantly on my mind. Particularly for cover letters, since I look at hundreds of them every month.

In some ways, cover letters aren't a big deal. Does the cover letter affect the overall chances of your story? Probably not. At FFO, we read the cover letters last. But I see such a wide variety of formats and content for cover letters – and few posts on the internet about cover letters for short stories (as opposed to cover letters for agents) – so I thought I'd give a few of my thoughts on the topic.

Short story cover letters can be very brief

More often than not, you're sending an email, so length doesn't matter. And when you submit a short story, the story should be front and center. You don't need a bio unless the market asks for it. A summary of the story is also unnecessary. Let the story and your writing speak for themselves.

Don't be afraid to ask questions or note where your story has deviated from the guidelines
Often, unless a website says so, you don't have to query with short fiction. But if you do deviate, definitely mention that in your cover letter, so we know you're paying attention.

Never, ever put yourself down
It's surprisingly common. Notes I've seen include the following:
-"I can do better."
-"I was too embarrassed to show it to my professor, so I'm sending it to you."
-"I'm just starting out, so I'm not very good yet."
It's a bad marketing strategy overall. Imagine an author's website saying, "Buy my book! Or not, because the plot's kind of weak and the villain is cardboard." Modesty is great, but remember, you're trying to sell your story here.
Asking for feedback is just fine… but don't be disappointed if you don't get it
Or if you only get something general. Since I don’t have time to be specific, I'll often say things like, "the plot wasn't strong enough," or "the narration was too distancing." I know that can, in itself, come off as terse, but we're not trying to be mean. It's not good strategy for a market to be rude to its submitters, because then they'll take their stories elsewhere.

Humor does not translate well through email
I think the person who wrote "Publish it or else!" was trying to be funny. But I wasn't impressed.

But I have one standard cover letter I like to send to save time
Fair enough, since I send out form rejections. But I at least like to think that you wrote the cover letter just for me after carefully considering our guidelines.

Like I said, these are just tips, and thoughts. Cover letters aren't the end of the world, unless you're rude or condescending. A short story market might not be looking for a long term relationship with the author like an agent has, but we do remember when someone is rude at any point in the process. 

And remember, for a lot of markets, the cover letter is the first impression they have of you. It never hurts to be polite and professional.

But don't just take MY word for it:.* 

Duotrope has a feature where they interview editors of each publication. You can sort by question – including the one where they ask what editors like in a cover letter.  Of course, with that many answers, there's no real theme – but I do note how many editors ask for little to nothing in a cover letter.

Any questions?

*(DID YOU GUYS SEE THIS? Reading Rainbow is BACK as an app!


  1. You always have such an interesting perspective on these sorts of things. I love to hear your point of view, especially since someday I might try my hand at publishing a short story with you! Thanks!

  2. What does your standard cover letter look like? I have a difficult time with it.

  3. Sabrina, this is excellent information. I've never submitted a short story, so I had no idea what to put in a cover letter before you wrote this.

    I think it is interesting that people put down themselves and their stories in the cover letter. There is a time and place for humility, but not when you are trying to sell yourself.


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