If you are a fiction or nonfiction writer and plan to submit a short story or personal essay to a literary magazine, your handshake and introduction of yourself and your work comes by way of a literary cover letter.
A literary cover letter is a short professional letter, typically only a few paragraphs, whose job is to introduce the item you are submitting for publication, state why you have chosen to submit it to this particular publication, and share a bit about your writing background.
Rather than go in cold, you use a cover letter to be your congenial foot in the door. It’s meant to briefly pave the way for your work by giving a bit of your personality and some foundational info to the editor that they’ll hold in mind when turning to the first line of your work.
Because of this, your cover letter has got to represent all the best parts of you in voice and presentation as it can make or break an editor’s deciding whether to accept your work.
Why Do You Need A Literary Cover Letter?
Even though ideally your work should stand on its own merit, a writer is entwined with their work. As a result, that human introduction to your piece is industry standard for all literary magazine submissions. Whether you’re submitting a a single haiku, a 25-page long short story, a personal essay or anything in-between, it’s got to be introduced by you first.
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How Your Literary Cover Letter Should Look
Think about how you’d dress for a job interview, and apply that crisp shirt and polished shoes metaphorically to your cover letter template.
Go to Microsoft Word and find “letter” in templates, or use a platform like Canva, where you can find clean pre-made templates that can be saved as PDFs.
- Your address, email, phone
- The literary magazine’s address, email, phone
- The editor’s name
- First paragraph, which includes:
- Warm professional greeting
- The title of your work, the word count, and the genre.
- Mention of the work being a simultaneous submission if you have also sent it out to other magazines.
- Second graph, which includes:
- Why you have chosen to send your work to this magazine/editor.
- Third graph, which includes:
- Your background/bio that is relevant to your writing (where possible).
- Warm, solicitous closing
- Your name and signature
The following are industry-standard formatting practices for crafting your literary cover letter:
- A common easy-to-read font (no cute fonts or script) like Times New Roman, Courier, or Garamond
- 1” margins all around
- White background with black letters
- 1.5 line space paragraphs with an additional space between the paragraphs
- Sign it with a digital signature
*Don’t have a digital signature? Here’s how you make it:
- Sign your name on a white piece of paper
- Take a picture of it
- Send the picture to yourself
- Save it on your computer as a JPEG
- Position your mouse at the spot where you would like the signature to go in your cover letter Word doc., and click
- Go to the toolbar –> Insert–> Picture–> Picture from file. Choose your JPEG and there you go!
*If you decide to turn your Word doc into a PDF later on, make sure you do that only after you’ve inserted your signature.
*Need proper formatting details for your manuscript?
How to Craft the Perfect Literary Cover Letter: The Dos and Don’ts
Bear in mind that any time you submit your work for publication, you are up against hundreds or even thousands of other writers- writers who have carefully rendered their short stories, poetry, and personal essays with heart and soul just as you have. The little things you do in your literary cover letter that are gracious, intelligent, and clear and the things you don’t do that will undermine your efforts will help your work along measurably.
- Always address the editor by name. Yes, this requires some legwork. Yes, you have to do this for every single submission even if you’re sending out to 94 different literary magazines. Such is life, but it’s an investment. Any letter that speaks to the editor by name engenders a relationship and establishes goodwill right off the bat. Any letter that starts with “Dear Editor” may as well walk its own self right into the rejected pile.
- Simultaneous Submission: mention whether your work has been submitted to other literary magazines. These days, it’s common to send out your work to a handful of magazines at a time and most magazines recognize and accept this, but they will also want to know you’ve done so.
Why do they care?
If an editor feels your work is right for their magazine, both because it fits in with their magazine’s ethos as well as would work nicely for a particular issue, they will present your work to their editorial board and argue why they should publish your piece in their upcoming issue. Once the issue is in place, it’s a delicately balanced Jenga tower.
You can only publish your piece with one literary magazine (most all of them require non-exclusive first rights) so if your work is accepted elsewhere and you haven’t warned the other magazines that they might have to pull yours out of their issue, it not only throws their balance off and makes them have to scramble to find another that’s similar, but it’s considered bad manners to not have managed that expectation in the first place.
If you do not tell them it’s a simultaneous submission, and it is accepted by one of the many magazines you submitted to, when you alert the other magazines, at the least, they will never consider your work again, and at the most, they may share your name with other magazines so they will know to avoid you as well. (It’s a small community)
And if the magazine in its submission guidelines says “no simultaneous submissions allowed”? Then you either have to respect this and patiently wait to be rejected or accepted by them before sending your work elsewhere, not submit to that magazine, or play your odds (which is not recommended).
- Include an accurate word count. This is easy to get; in Microsoft Word, go to Tools –> Word Count and the system will tell you the complete word count of the piece. If you want to be precise and omit your title and name/address, you can highlight everything but that information, then get the word count on just the highlighted area.
If your work has been prepared on a typewriter or a program that does not have a word count feature, you can know that each page of your manuscript (if formatted to industry standards) will be between 250-325 words/page.
- Read as much of the magazines you’re submitting to as you can: do this so you know whether your work is in line with the magazine’s character and types of pieces they gravitate to as well as to be able to reference any that inspired you or made you want to be published with them.
*And to avoid embarrassing yourself and wasting everyone’s time by submitting to a magazine that only takes a certain type of piece or genre that’s not what you submitted.
In your second paragraph, reference those pieces and/or any reason you have approached this particular magazine. This will show the editor you’re not simply spraying your work all over but have been intentional with your submissions.
- Lean, Warm Bio: In your third paragraph, keep your bio lean and professional and your tone warm. If you have published elsewhere, won awards, or earned relevant degrees, list the main names.
If you have not ever published or have no particular literary experience yet, it’s perfectly fine to give a bit about your education or background and say “This is my first submission” in lieu of publications or awards. Being an emerging author won’t count against you; in fact, many magazines delight in being the ones to discover new voices!
- Keep a literary magazine spreadsheet (you’re welcome to use ours): a spreadsheet will help you stay organized. Note on the sheet when you submit your piece, which piece, to whom, what their response is, and whether you followed up after 3-4 weeks or thereabouts. This will help you avoid double-sending or missing out on a magazine who writes back to say they won’t be taking the piece you submitted, but they like your work and please submit something else (which happens a lot!)
Click to Access the FREE Spreadsheet (No Signing Up Necessary)
(Though you certainly may sign up, especially if you’d like our comprehensive Novel Planning Workbook):
- Proofread! Have your cover letter proofread by an editor or writer friend. Like you would do for all your work, ensure it gets in front of another person’s eyes so they can catch any errors, typos, or issues of clarity.
- Avoid a Cluttered Letter Template or Unique Formatting: Don’t get fancy with your template or go off-roading with your formatting. Keep it simple and clean. Follow the guidelines. There are loads of templates in Microsoft Word and Canva that are colorful, have spots for your photo, and graphic design elements and such pretty fonts, but avoid the temptation to be splashy.
- Don’t be impersonal: Once more for the back row: “Dear Editor” is not recommended.
- Avoid sounding anything but gracious and humble: “This is the story you’ve been waiting for,” or “You’re going to want to publish this story,” kind of sentiments, whether meant in earnest or in jest, tend not to land well.
- Don’t summarize your story or talk about it in any way: in Paragraph 1, stick with the facts.
- Don’t submit blindly: In Paragraph 2, if you don’t have any personal experience with the magazine you can reference, either wait until you can read a few of the pieces or leave that paragraph out entirely.
*Sending blindly without at least skimming the magazine or reading about it online is not recommended.
- Don’t get too personal: In Paragraph 3: no personal information is required. The editor does not need to know your marital status, that you have pets, speak several languages, have favorite foods, or what your hobbies are.
*Note: if you wish to write something brief about your personal life, or you have a unique situation such as, “I was raised in Malaysia, went to the Sorbonne where I received my degree in Criminology, and I now live in Honolulu with my husband and two children and work for the State Department,” that’s OK and humanizes you nicely (plus, it sets you apart in the editor’s memory). Totally up to you.
By following these steps, keeping your literary cover letter brief, clean, professional but warm, you’re sure to have the perfect paper handshake that will prep any editor for wanting to read (and eventually publish!) your work.
Need a second pair of eyes to skim your cover letter, your manuscript, or any materials you’re submitting for publication? It’s always smart to make sure you’re sending in your cleanest work to ensure you’re in the top category of submissions, and we’re happy to help!