So, in addition to my writing, I’m also a submissions editor for Apex Magazine (which is a fantastic magazine that all of you should check out, enjoy, and consider subscribing to). “Submissions editor” is a fancy way of saying “slush reader.” I’m one of a legion of people who act as gatekeepers, combing through submissions, sending the very best on to the editor-in-chief and rejecting the rest (i.e. most of them). I enjoy this job, which is good, because I don’t get paid (slush readers usually don’t). I get to see from the receiving end of a submission what works and what doesn’t, what stories compel me to read to the end (and how) and what stories I can’t read past the first paragraph (and why). The latter far outnumber the former, but sifting through that chaff is worth finding the occasional fantastic grain of wheat.
What makes me read to the end, what compels me to send a story up to our editor-in-chief, is basically a discussion of what makes for great, gripping fiction. Which is interesting and important, but not what I want to talk about at the moment.
I want to talk about cover letters.
Since Apex only takes electronic submissions, I’m referring to the content of the email that accompanies the story attachment. As a writer submitting my work, I’ve read a lot of advice about what should be included in a cover letter, electronic or otherwise. Now that I’m on the other side of that transaction, I can tell you that a lot of them are wrong.
Here’s what should be in your cover letter:
- “Dear editor-in-chief’s name” – Get it right. I get a lot of cover letters addressing the last editor-in-chief, and that’s sloppy. Checking the masthead takes all of five seconds.
- Your name.
- The name of your piece.
- Sincerely, your name.
That’s it. Really.
Please don’t give me a summary of your story. If the story can’t stand on its own, I will reject it, and I want to have my own impression of your story, not yours. Please don’t tell me your life story, how you’ve been writing forever, the classes you’ve taken, etc. If your story is good, I don’t need to know, and if it’s bad, it won’t save you. Previous publications, professional affiliations, etc? Eh. Personally, I can do without. Again, if your story is good, I don’t care if you’ve never been published before, and if it’s not, all the publications in the world won’t make a difference.
The bottom line: your story needs to speak for itself. You need to get out of the way and let it.
Now, let me be clear: I will not reject a story solely on a cover letter. (Well…I imagine it may well happen, but it would have to be really bad. Like, threatening and/or offensive bad.) But these mistakes are really annoying, and believe me, you don’t want me to be already annoyed when I have to decide if your story is one of the few I send up.