To submit your latest short story, essay or poem, you’ll need a cover letter—which is much different from a query. Use these tips from inside a creative writing program to help your letter make the grade.
While working toward my Master of Fine Arts at The Ohio State University, I did what many writing students (and professors) do: I joined the staff of the university’s literary journal. Reading and evaluating fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction submitted by writers living across the country and beyond proved to be endlessly fascinating. And because I never let on that back in high school I had been voted “Most Disorganized,” I was eventually given an editorship. When I went on to earn my Ph.D. at the University of Missouri, I made sure to work on that university’s journal, as well.
In fact, a great many literary journals, including some of the nation’s oldest and most revered, are affiliated with university writing programs. Part of the mission of these journals is to give creative writing students a hands-on education in literary publishing. But you don’t need to be a student for your work to appear in one. You just need to make it through the submission process.
I’m happy to report that in my 10 years of working on a number of journals, first as a student and later as faculty, not once did anyone ever utter the word “blockbuster.” Nobody based an editorial decision on whether an essayist’s website was getting millions of hits. No one cared whether or not a short story fit neatly into some red-hot “urban paranormal leprechaun bullfighter” genre. All of which is to say that when it comes to submissions, editors of literary journals are concerned with exactly one thing: finding manuscripts that knock their socks off.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that editors are only human. And fairly or not, a poor cover letter on any submission casts a negative light on the writer before the editor even gets to the manuscript’s first page.
So what should a cover letter entail? From reading thousands of submissions over the past decade, I’ve noticed that certain mistakes repeatedly crop up—and that your letter can stand out simply by avoiding these common errors. Let’s take a look at an (entirely fictitious) example:
Cool Story Magazine
123 Main Street
Anytown, State, Zip
Did you know that it takes 28 folds to make the perfect swan?2 You will learn that and more after reading “The Secret of Paper Folding”.3 It is a fictionalized account of a boy named Sammy who meets a mysterious old woman who has never before shared her origami secret. It is a story about the importance of friendship, sad but ultimately redemptive, with a cast of unforgettable characters.4 “The Secret of Paper Folding” is based on the true story of a unique lady I met back when I was a young girl.5 I believe that your readers would appreciate the story’s universal themes as well as the lighthearted spirit in which it is told.6
I was born in Norway but raised in Missouri.7 I have worked as an emergency room technician, safari guide, Model T refurbisher, bounty hunter, hand model, ferry captain, lighthouse keeper, ninja and tympanist.8
I am an unpublished fiction writer9 but am hopeful that you’ll select this story for the Pirate’s Booty Review.10
Thank you for your consideration.
Let’s turn our attention to the points numbered throughout in red:
1. Is the editor’s name Fred or Sandra? The writer has probably sent this letter to several journals and hasn’t changed the name in all the necessary places. Also, the salutation should include the editor’s full name, or “Dear Professor Murphy” if the editor is a professor, or “Dear Dr. Murphy” if he is a Ph.D.
2. Unlike a query letter to a literary agent, your cover letter to a journal doesn’t need to (and shouldn’t) try to grab the editor’s attention. Save that for the work itself. Witty? Snappy? Leave it out.
3. I see this error all the time. I think it’s reasonable for an editor to be suspicious of a writer who doesn’t know the rules of punctuation. The period always goes inside the quotation marks. Be vigilant about your grammar, always.
4. This advice might surprise writers who’ve worked hard summarizing their novels in queries to agents and editors—but, again, a cover letter isn’t a query, and the convention with literary journals is not to summarize the work in the cover letter. Let your submission speak for itself.
5. If you’re submitting fiction or poetry, there’s no need to connect the work to your personal experience. For an essay or memoir piece, you can do it briefly if your experience is relevant, but you shouldn’t feel obligated.
6. Of course you believe readers will like it. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be submitting it. Leave this out.
7. Fun fact! But also totally irrelevant.
8. It’s fine to state, briefly, something about yourself—your career, your locale—so that you come across like a flesh-and-blood human being. But I see this jack-of-all-trades thing so frequently that I had to mention it. There’s no need to prove how worldly and interesting you are. Let the work itself reveal your intimate knowledge of the kudu’s mating habits.
9. Because this cover letter doesn’t mention previous publications, I might deduce that the author is unpublished. Still, there’s no reason to highlight this fact.
10. There’s nothing wrong with the sentiment, but what the heck is the Pirate’s Booty Review? (Remember, she’s supposedly submitting to Cool Story Magazine.) Another careless error.
Bearing all this in mind, here’s a revised version:
Cool Story Magazine
123 Main Street
Anytown, State, Zip
Dear Fred Murphy,
Please find enclosed my short story “The Secret of Paper Folding.”
I live in rural Missouri, where I work as an emergency room technician.
I enjoy reading Cool Story Magazine and am hopeful that you’ll find my story to be a good fit.
Thank you for your consideration.
Simple, polite, even a little boring? That’s perfect.
A few additional points:
If you’re simultaneously submitting the same work to a number of journals, it’s good form to include a statement to that effect.
Check the journal’s website to be sure you’re writing to the current editor. Many journals, especially those staffed with MFA students, change personnel frequently. When in doubt, “Dear Fiction Editor” beats using the wrong name.
If you’re submitting electronically (more and more publications are allowing this), all of these principles still hold. Keep your cover letter e-mail short, sweet and professional.
All that said, if you’ve been previously published, then go ahead and include where your work has appeared. If you’re in a creative writing program or have won any honors, awards or fellowships for your writing, you might briefly include that information. Will any of this give you a leg up? Not necessarily. It might buy you an extra minute or two of an editor’s hopeful attention—at first—but ultimately the work will stand or fall on its own merits. Which is exactly how it should be.
This article was written by Michael Kardos.
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Lit Mag Submissions 101: How, When, and Where to Send Your Work
Everything you need to know about getting your work published
This article was written in partnership with the Authors Guild for their Writers’ Resource Library, which includes career resources for new and veteran writers, and is available to Authors Guild members. For more about joining the Authors Guild visit authorsguild.org.
We all know that writing is a solitary pursuit. You go into a room with your computer or notepad, lock the door, and then spend four hours pulling at your hair and slacking off online. Then you go get a drink. Still, no matter how much time you spend alone chugging coffee, smacking your head against the keyboard, and throwing crumpled drafts of chapters into the trash, eventually you’ll need to send your work out into the world. For most beginning writers, this means stories, essays, or poems that will be sent to literary magazines. This guide will give you an overview of how magazines work, and what you can do to give your own manuscript the best shot of being accepted.
How Literary Magazines Read Submissions
The 1% Rule — Before getting into what you, the writer, should do when submitting, it is important to understand the basics of how literary magazines work. Literary magazines run the gamut from small blogs operated as hobbies by one or two people to magazines like The Paris Review or The New Yorker with large staffs. Some pay writers for work, some don’t. Some are online only, some are print only. But in general, you should know that no matter the size, most magazines get far more submissions than they can use or than they can carefully read. A small magazine can easily get a thousand submissions in a year for only a handful of spots, and big magazines will get many thousands. Combine this with the fact that many of a magazine’s spots will be taken by solicited pieces instead of unsolicited submissions — aka “the slush” — and that means that acceptance rates at good magazines are only about 1% or less.
Why Submissions Are Rejected — Pieces are accepted because an editor loves them. They find the voice fresh, the ideas unique, the characters gripping, or in some other way they’re just floored by the piece. It is hard to know what makes an editor accept something, but it is easier to understand what makes an editor reject. Because there are so many submissions, lit mag staff read to reject. If your piece is filled with typos, scrawled in pencil instead of typed, or otherwise lacking in professionalism, it will probably be instantly rejected.
But you should also remember that because magazines get so many more submissions than they can use, most submissions are read very quickly. Frequently, the first readers are interns or volunteers who cull the hundreds or thousands of submissions down to just a handful of “maybes” for the editors to choose from. Normally, each manuscript will get two reads before being rejected, but if the reader doesn’t like the work they may only read a couple pages — if that — before saying “pass.” However, if there is a huge backlog of submissions, then the staff might host a reading party and have everyone plow through the submissions as fast as possible.
The point is that there are a million reasons your work may be rejected that have nothing to do with the quality of the work. Your submission may simply not have been read carefully enough, or perhaps the magazine filled their fiction slots for the next three issues and rejected the rest. Maybe the magazine already has two poems about ravens and your brilliant “Ode to the Stork” would be one bird poem too many. Even if the editors read your work carefully and loved it, they may simply have had to make a tough call between your story and several others that they loved. A rejection is not a reflection of the quality of your work. Keep that in mind at all times.
Maybe the magazine already has two poems about ravens and your brilliant “Ode to the Stork” would be one bird poem too many.
Preparing Your Manuscript for Submission
“Send us your best work” — When you read the submission guidelines to a magazine — something you should always do — they almost invariably say to “send us your best work.” But what is your best work, and when do you know when a piece is finished? Sadly, there is no simple answer. As a writer you have to decide. It is always a good idea to have a few trusty readers take a look at your piece to see if they feel it is finished, but otherwise it is up to you.
Still, you should make sure that it actually is finished to the best of your abilities. Many beginning writers send out work that they know has a weak ending, or a story that starts two pages before it should, with the thought that the editors at a literary magazine will take the time to edit the piece to completion. This is just not how it works. Yes, once in a blue moon an editor might love a piece’s potential enough to heavily revise it with the author, but normally the editors do not have time and — as noted above — the readers may reject the piece long before the editors could see it. Most lit mag editors are not paid much, if anything, and simply do not have the time to work through many revisions with an author. So send your best work.
Formatting — You want your submission to look professional, which means, first of all, following the guidelines of the magazine. Beyond that, your formatting should be simple and unadorned. No wacky fonts, centered text, or weird colors… not unless you are submitting work to a children’s humor magazine at least. Instead, use a standard font like Times New Roman in 12 points, double spaced, with page numbers at the bottom. In the “header” section, you should put your name and possibly your email, phone number, and/or story title. If you are mailing the submission, staple or paper clip.
Oh, and proofread, proofread, proofread.
Oh, and proofread, proofread, proofread.
Cover Letters — One thing that seems to disproportionately stress emerging writers is the cover letter. What should you say? Can you grab the editor’s attention? Will the cover letter give you an advantage? Honestly, the cover letter is mostly unimportant. Cover letters are typically given only a quick glance and are almost never a deciding factor for a submission. Your cover letter should be short and sweet along these lines
Dear [editor’s name],
I loved [piece X and Y] from your last issue. My own work has been previously published in [list three to five magazines]. I have an MFA from [X university] and live in [some town]. Thank your for your consideration.
If you don’t have an MFA or previous publications, don’t worry. If you were lucky enough to get a personalized rejection from the magazine before, you should mention that. If you know anyone on staff, or met staff members at a recent event, you can list that too. Otherwise, keep it short and to the point and avoid describing your story or trying to pitch yourself. Most editors will simply roll their eyes when they see a cover letter that starts: “What would happen if vampires drank orange juice instead of blood? In my thrilling short story, ‘Juice Suckers from Transylvania,’ this reality is explored in a fashion that will blow your mind and make you burn your volumes of that hack called Shakespeare. You are lucky that I’m even allowing you to read such genius work, so please accept it promptly!”
Finding the Right Magazines for Your Work
Reading as Research — The best way to understand which magazines publish the kind of work you like is, well, to read them. Go to a bookstore and browse their literary magazines section, or else look at the “credits” in collections you love to see where your favorite authors published their work. Getting published by a magazine that works with writers that you admire is always going to be more satisfying that being published by a magazine you’ve never read.
Other Resources — Clifford Garstang annually publishes a ranking of literary magazines based on the number of Pushcart Prize wins and nominations each has received. This list should not be viewed as any kind of definitive ranking, but it is a great starting point to find the magazines that are both respected in the literary world and that might like your work. Duotrope is also a great resource for writers. It lists almost every lit mag, and lets you search by pay rate, genre, and other factors. However, it does cost money to use.
Getting published by a magazine that works with writers that you admire is always going to be more satisfying that being published by a magazine you’ve never read.
Tiers — A good way to organize your magazine submissions is to figure out a handful of magazines you want to submit to (perhaps between 10 and 30) and organize them into tiers of about five. Send your story to the five magazines you most want your work to appear in. If they all reject, send the story to the next five magazines, and so on until you have gone through all your tiers. If no magazine takes the story, perhaps it is time to heavily revise.
Using tiers means you won’t be the annoying writer carpet-bombing 100 magazines with the same submission at the same time, but it also means you won’t have a story accepted by The Podunk Review only to find out the next day that The New Yorker wants it.
Dealing with Rejection
If you are submitting your work, you will inevitably deal with rejection. The average short story or poem may be rejected twenty times before it is accepted, and even famous writers deal with rejection daily. When you receive a rejection, you should try as hard as possible to not take it personally. Nothing good has ever come from angrily writing back to editors telling them they are fools for not seeing your genius, or from insulting a literary magazine online. If you can’t handle rejection, then perhaps writing is not for you.
Types of Rejection — When your rejections start rolling in, you’ll notice that they come in three different types. Most will be a standard form rejection that politely says the piece isn’t for that magazine, but they wish you the best of luck elsewhere. Sometimes you’ll find a form rejection that is more positive, talking about the “evident merit” — or equivalent phrasing — of the submission. And now and then, you may get a personal note from an editor telling you how much they liked the piece. If you got either a positive form rejection or a personal note, you should be sure to submit to the magazine again. They like your work, even if the last submission was not quite right, and want to see more. While it may still sting to be rejected in a positive manner, keep in mind that very few submissions get a personal rejection. You should consider it a compliment.
Resubmitting After Rejection — For all three types of rejection, you should never submit the same piece again — not unless the editor explicitly asks for a revision. If an editor tells you the work came close, they want to see something new from you. Instead, wait until you have a new piece that is finished to the best of your abilities and send that one out. There is no need to rush out a new submission, even if you got a personal rejection. Submitting unfinished work will only harm your chances, and editors are unlikely to read your new submission for a few months anyway. Do note in your cover letter if you got a personal rejection last time.
Keep at It
The best thing you can do as a writer, beyond writing the best work you are capable of, is to keep on submitting. Submitting takes a lot of time and work, but it is the only way to get published as an emerging writer. Remember, only about 1% of submissions are accepted. Even if only 5% of all submissions are truly great, that still means four times as many great submissions are rejected as accepted. So don’t take rejection personally, keep on writing, and submit again and again like it is your job. Because, well, it is.