The power of politeness: how playing nice in your cover letter can help you succeed in publishing

For those of you who’ve not ridden the submissions pony before, for those of you who’ve already wet your toes in the pool with publishing, and for those of you who’ve proudly got an agent and a house, this little article is for you. The premise of it is a simple fact: more can be gained with a polished dose of honey than with a rude serving of vinegar. Translated, it means ‘be nice.’ Your cover letter is often your first hello to the publishing world—and, if you’re not careful, it may be your last.

Acquisitions Editors are concerned with many things: staying on top of the pile of submissions they receive, accepting only the ones that meet their press’ guidelines, vetting the author’s information (yes, indeed we do that) reading with a mind toward all the elements of good writing including grammar, and nearing the end, determining the suitability of the submission for their journal, i.e., thumbs up/thumbs down. So, don’t you want to help out the AE when you can?

Here are two real-life examples of how not to write a cover letter, as extracted from my files:

In the author’s words:

Hi, here’s a bio note in third-person: So-and-So’s short fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including ____, The ___, The ______Review, ___, ____ ___, and others. (The author listed ten altogether.) He lives in ___, North ___.

In the author’s words:

Please see whether my odd bit of a story, “___ ___,” is odd enough for you. (Okay, not quite a “bit” at nearly 4000 words.) Anyway it centers on a cascade of small betrayals that leads up to a big change in life, in which no one’s honor is left undented. (Three paragraphs later…) “He has published widely in the last few years, as you can see at http:// ______. ” (quote marks are author’s.)

Instead of being far too casual or supposedly clever (because AEs just don’t care about that sort of thing in a cover letter) try adhering to this simple formula when writing your own:

  • Letter heading: ID yourself with complete contact info: Name, Address, Phone, Email, and Website.
  • Greet the recipient by saying: Dear Editors of Magazine Name,
  • Body—First paragraph, be polite and ID your work, in a way similar to this:

Thank you for considering my previously unpublished, 2500-word short fiction, Title, for publication.

  • Body—Second paragraph:

A few of my publication credentials include: list three or four of your most recent publications (hint: just include the title of the journal/magazine because the editors can find you in that publication’s archives.)

  • Body—Third paragraph: Tell a few of your affiliations, writers’ guilds, organizations, etc., especially if you’ve served in a leadership role or on the board.
  • Closing: End your cover letter by thanking them again.
  • Signature (type) your name.

Cheers! And here’s wishing you great and continued success in practicing all Your First Hellos!