I’ve now worked as an intern at three different very selective literary magazines, and I’ve learned a lot about how successful pieces make their way into a magazine — and how pieces get the dreaded rejection slip. Sometimes a quality piece just isn’t quite there, and we will often include a personal note or a different rejection with these, encouraging writers to send more. Sometimes, though, writers manage to shoot themselves in the foot before we even look at the piece, and that’s with bad cover or query letters.
I’ve seen it all by now, and some letters can be pretty disastrous. I always read the piece anyway, but there are plenty of things that can make a reader much less well inclined toward your writing. Here are five cover letter mistakes I’ve seen, and that you would do well to avoid!
Being disrespectful to other people, even if it isn’t us.
Few people are bold enough to slam the very magazine they’re submitting to, but you’d be surprised how many people badmouth others in a petty or disrespectful way. I still remember the cover letter that called the female editors of other magazines b*tches because they wouldn’t take his work. Misogyny won’t really make an editor feel warm and fuzzy about your writing, nor will any kind of aggressive, disrespectful or dismissive attitudes.
I’m awesome! You have the honor of publishing me!
It can be a fine line between listing your accomplishments and outright bragging. Make sure you are understated about your general awesomeness, but don’t be afraid to list the facts about your past publications.
After the jump: three other no-no’s in your cover letter.
What magazine is this again?
Yes, it has happened — people write cover letters with the wrong magazine or editor title on it. What happens more often is stories get sent that have no place in the magazine because they’re all wrong for it — they’re way past our reported word limit, they’re the wrong genre, or they’re non-fiction essays (yes, even magazines that call themselves fiction-only mags get offers for non-fiction essays). A surefire way to get rejected is to not do your research or even read one past issue of the magazine. Don’t waste your own time by sending a story to places that don’t fit it.
Tell me now what you’re paying.
Most literary magazines don’t pay anything to authors beside a few free copies. If you start demanding money in the cover letter, it shows that 1) You’re so full of yourself you already expect to be accepted; and 2) You haven’t done your homework about what the magazine pays. Don’t ask about money until you’ve gotten an acceptance; then you can ask about everything.
DON’T DO ALL CAPS AND CHEKC YUR SPELING.
I know, it sounds basic enough, but with the advent of online and email submissions, I’ve been getting more and more of these beauties, where people don’t even take the time to proofread their stories or cover letters. It shows me that you haven’t taken the time to polish your piece, so it’s probably not ready for publication even if some of it is brilliant. It’s also really obnoxious to have an all caps email. So just don’t do it!
Ideally, a cover letter should be a modest, understated, but intriguing doorway in to you as a writer and to your piece. Offer your past publications, a sentence at most about what inspired the story or why it is a good fit for this particular magazine, and get out of the way for your story to do the talking. Now go to it, and good luck!