Guest Post, Brandon Amico: The Cover Letter Advice Post to (Please, God) End All Cover Letter Advice Posts

No Junk Mail
“Message to the mail man” by gajman is licensed under CC by 2.0

I’m going to be honest with you: I hate blog posts that tell people how to get published faster, how best to submit or write cover letters. More accurately: I hate the number of them. I understand that the process of submitting to journals can seem daunting to a newcomer, but I see more social media sharing of posts that offer submission tips (and submission “strategy”) than those that offer writing tips, which seems backwards to me, and beside the point of what would hopefully be an artistic endeavor.

Furthering my frustration is that many of these articles make cover letters, and the submission process as a whole, seem like an intricate, mysterious process. Truthfully, it’s not. And I fear that all the attention and worry about the logistics of submitting, namely the cover letters which seem to give those new to the process the most trouble, is distracting. As an editor, let me tell you: I believe a lot of people are over-thinking this.

Because the reality is: we’re spending a lot of time talking about what hardly matters today.

As an editor, I’m only looking to determine two things in a cover letter:

  1. That you take the publication seriously
  2. That you take your own writing seriously

That, essentially, is it. Sure, all editors have pet peeves, but those are minor, and for any editor who gives a crap (which, since most editorships are purely a labor of love and not paying gigs—even then, paying very little—is essentially all of them) it will always come down to the quality of the writing itself. Those annoyances (more on those later), while worth being wary of, in the end don’t matter. Only a lack of one of the two things listed above would actually impact the way I read a submitter’s work.

Of course, if there are any specific instructions with regards to cover letters in the guidelines, like specifically asking for you to include or omit a bio (generally you would include one if not specified), make sure you follow them. But usually there are not, and the presence of a cover letter of some kind is simply implied, which I think is where a lot of the confusion can come from. So having a sense of what a typical cover letter should do might not be second nature to newcomers, but it’s hardly complicated once you’ve been on the editorial side and read a few directed at you.

Cover letters, remember, came from a time when submissions (and job résumés, for that matter) had to be mailed in physically. A writer would have to type out a cordial hello to editors on a typewriter, insert the letter and the submission into an appropriately-sized envelope, affix postage, then, I assume, ride their donkey to the nearest township and hand over the parcel to the Post for the next time a train came through town (again, this is based on my assumption—kind of before my time, submission-wise. My foray into publishing didn’t start until the late 00’s). The cover letter was necessary because for an editor, receiving an envelope that is a product of a fair amount of effort already and opening it to find nothing but the work to be considered—the effort stopping short of the formal hello and thank you—would come off as impolite and impersonal.

Today, however, nearly all submissions are handled online. While this has made the process far less cumbersome, it also means a few things have changed about the act of submitting and considering work for publication, for both writers and editors. For one, it makes the ability to submit one’s work faster, easier, all around more accessible for people to start sending out their work. Therefore, submissions are far more numerous. Editors are inundated with submissions, plenty of it high-enough quality to put together stellar issues of course, but still many to read and consider. That means more cover letters to read, which many writers hate writing anyway—so for both sides a shorter letter becomes preferred.

Also, the proliferation of online submissions more or less makes cover letters…well, not terribly useful. What can one put in a cover letter about oneself that an editor can’t already tell? Most submissions are coming through Submittable or another submission manager that already provides name and contact information. If an editor wants to know more about you or your past work, a Google search takes all of a couple seconds. You quite possibly have a website for that very purpose. What I’m saying is that there isn’t a need for cover letters in the sense that there used to be. I do think they are polite to include, and show some personability (always a nice thing to see from makers of art, no?), but editors combing through their “slush piles” really have all they require already—they want to read your work. (For that matter, cover letters for employment purposes have largely become irrelevant as the hiring manager wants to get down to the meat of the résumé.)

Which is not say that you shouldn’t pay attention to this part of the social contract between writer and editor, but rather that it’s not something worth troubling yourself over past the few moments it takes to do it right.

So, even though I railed against this exact thing up front, allow me to explain why those two points above (taking the publication and your own work seriously), are all that matters to me in regards to cover letters.

For me, it’s nice to see that someone submitting to my publication is either a fan—nothing pleases an editor more than to hear some kind words about a poem or story the submitter enjoyed in a past issue of the journal—or, at the least, cared enough to look at our Masthead and write mine and/or my co-poetry editor’s name. If I get the sense that you don’t even know who we are as a journal and are just submission-bombing every place with an open listing on Duotrope, it doesn’t reflect well on how seriously you take us while simultaneously asking us to take your work under serious consideration. The number of submissions that start “Dear Editor” or otherwise reflect that the submitter views a journal as the same as all the others out there—just another poetry/fiction publication, undifferentiated—is unfortunate. It also strikes me as likely that those writing “Dear Editor” are sometimes the same people who bristle, publicly on social media, about receiving a rejection that opens “Dear Writer.”

When in doubt, it’s best to keep a cover letter short and cordial. If it’s your style, you can be witty, enthusiastic, and more in your cover letter—I like seeing the writer’s personality outside of the work!—but please, don’t do so at the expense of your own writing. I received one submission whose author told me the poems within were written in a period of severe dietary distress—not exactly the association you want to build as I move on to your poems. Some cover letters preface the work with something along the lines of “These probably aren’t very good.” This, to me, is baffling; if you, the person who spent time and effort to build these works of art, don’t think they’re of any quality, why should anyone else? And if you truly think sending them out is a waste of time, why would you then knowingly waste the time of an editor? Some of this language may come from an attempt at appearing modest, but direct communication with an editor is not the place for that. Neither is arrogance, mind you—that’s actually far worse—but all that matters is that you believe in your work, and think it’s worth an editor’s time and consideration.

In that sense, the way I look at a cover letter is like checking a box. Did the writer demonstrate that they take the journal and its editors as well as their own work seriously? Yes? Okay, then let’s see the poems. Everything else is a distant second. I’ll always appreciate a bit of warmth or sociability from other members of a community that I’m happy to be a part of, but writing past that makes it far more likely that you’ve added something unnecessary or questionable. Editors do have pet peeves, as mentioned above, and while none of them will disqualify you from fair consideration, pretty much any of the following things won’t help your chances:

  • “Cute” bios. I don’t care about your pets’ names. Yes, I’ll enjoy all the pet photos and videos shared with me on social media, as everyone enjoys them, and I’m sure your animals are lovable and adorable, but unless your poems were written while under a hypnotic spell put on you by your Jack Russell Terrier, Juno, leave the pets out of the bio. I’ve seen some humor tucked into the final line of some bios, and sometimes they are amusing while still fitting into the main two points of criteria above, but more often than not they come off as unprofessional or at least distracting. Also worth remembering is that these bios will often be pared down by editors if your work is accepted anyway.
  • Don’t explain your work in your cover letter. To wit, I’m not further explaining this bullet point.
  • Read. The. Guidelines. Some editors will not consider a submission from someone who clearly couldn’t be bothered to take 60 seconds to read the guidelines for submitting (yet again, not showing respect for the journal that one is asking to spend well more than that amount of time reviewing one’s work)—as is their right. Personally, I’m not in that camp because I want to find the best possible poetry I can, no matter what, but clear disregard for the very reasonable guidelines given (as they always are, no matter the journal) will not be setting one up for success. Your work will have to shine bright to make an editor forget the fact that you couldn’t be bothered to follow their instruction. It certainly does happen, but if you want to help your chances, take the time to be considerate.
  • Bios that state number of publications. “FirstName LastName has been published in over 200 journals.” Hm. I don’t doubt that claims like this are true (though like hell am I going to count to verify), but it says something about a writer’s priorities, implying that one cares more about publication than creating good work; quantity over quality. List a handful of relatively recent publications you’re proud of, and leave it at that. If you have a book or multiple out, you probably don’t need to list more than those. Notably, I get the sense that someone who’s published in 200, 300 (I even saw one submission that claimed over 1000) journals is just sending the same batch or two of poems indiscriminately to as many journals as they can.
  • Are you sure you followed the guidelines? Never hurts to double check.
  • Address the submission to the proper editor(s). For example, if you’re sending fiction, address it to the fiction editor(s) by name. If there are no dedicated fiction editors for whatever reason, addressing it to the editor, managing editor, or editor-in-chief is your best bet. In rare occasions a journal might have more than a couple editors for a given genre, in which case “Fiction Editors” or “Poetry Editors” is an acceptable substitute to listing six or seven names out. Worth keeping in mind is that unless submissions are read blind, these are the very first words read in your submission and to get them wrong (like saying “Dear Editor” when there are multiple editors in your genre, or getting the gender of the editor wrong—I’ve seen it) is not a good first impression.

Editors want to read your work, and if it fits what they’re looking for, they’ll want to publish it. Submissions are the lifeblood of many journals, and certainly the one I work with. Cover letters are usually necessary, but there is rarely a need to make them more than a friendly, professional hello. Don’t trouble yourself more than you need to with this. Check the box and move on to the work—it’s what both writers and editors care about most.

Guest Blog Post, Mark Lewandowski: Paper vs. Plastic; or a Tale of Two Essays

MarkLewandowskiFor many years I resisted submitting my work to online journals.  I suppose I was afraid they didn’t have the reputation of paper journals, and that my university wouldn’t consider them legitimate venues for a creative writing professor’s work.  Or maybe there was something off-putting about reading something on the same plastic device I composed it on.  Reading my work in published form already makes me squirm; too often I want to declunkify numerous sentences.  At least if the story or essay is already in a book or journal there’s not much you can do about it.  It’s there with all its blemishes permanently intact.

Words on a computer screen, on the other hand, seem so ephemeral.  All writers want their work to survive the ages.  A book might become thick with dust, but you can still store, and then later find it on a shelf.  With one click on a computer you can replace your work in an on-line journal with Miley Cyrus’s latest twerking pic.

But two years ago my attitude towards online journals changed completely.  At AWP one year, novelist Leslie Pietrzyk asked me to submit something to Redux, a new on-line journal devoted to “reprinting” stories, poems and essays that had once appeared in journals now “languishing on dusty library shelves.”  No one had ever solicited work from me before.  I was thrilled, even it was “only” for an on-line journal.  Some months later I sent Leslie “Tourist Season at Auschwitz,” which originally appeared in The Gettysburg Review.  (I found out later that the issue containing my essay sold out.)  It appeared in Redux a month or two later.  The journal is a simple affair.  Each weekly issue contains just one story, essay or poem, followed by an account of its composition.  Leslie uses a simple WordPress blogging program with few bells and whistles.  This being a labor of love, Redux can’t pay its contributors.

At about the same time Traveler’s Tales published A Small Key Opens Big Doors, one of four anthologies celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps.  It contains my essay “Caroline,” which first appeared some years ago in Cimarron Review. (Like “Tourist Season at Auschwitz,” “Caroline” sprang from the same frantic pile of material I wrote after my three visits to Auschwitz in the early 90’s.)  It’s a beautiful volume—thick, creamy paper, an eye catching, dark red cover.  It looks like an appropriate Christmas gift, or something you’d give to someone going into the Peace Corps.  My remuneration?  Contributor’s copies.

I pushed both the anthology and the online journal, using all the social networking I could stomach:  My blog, Twitter, Facebook, etc.  Because the essays are drawn from a common material I was able to broadcast both on any number of Facebook pages, including ones devoted to Peace Corps Poland, Polish American Writers, and stories of World War II.  I included links to the journal, and links to the appropriate Amazon page.

I soon realized what I’m sure is obvious to others: more people read “Tourist Season at Auschwitz” than “Caroline.”  You can track hits on Redux, same as you can track sales on Amazon.  People responded to “Tourist Season” on all the Facebook pages.  Most of them even said nice things about it.  It got around.  People shared it on other pages. Some still do, in fact. “Caroline?”  Not so much.  Maybe it’s a weaker essay.  I don’t know.  More likely, the anthology is simply harder to share.  Asking someone one to click on a link and read is far easier than asking someone to click on a link, pony up $20, and then wait a week for the book to show up.

And Amazon makes it easy with books.  What about those beautiful literary journals?  Numerous times on my travels around the world people have asked me if they could find stuff I published.  “Sure,” I might say, “just send a check to this university.  Make sure it’s not during the summer.  No one’s going to be there.  Oh, and I really don’t know the volume number containing my story, so just tell them it came out in 1998.  But, given all the delays journals are prone to, the appropriate issue, even though it appeared in 1998, is really, officially, a 1996 issue.  You could just give them my name, but interns come and go; whoever gets your check might not recognize my name.  Just go by the cover art.  Tell them you want the issue with the dog on the cover.  I’m pretty sure there’s only one dog cover.”

I don’t have to do that as often anymore.  Now, I can just say, “Superstition Review.  My name is in the index.”  Not even that, actually.  If they have a smart phone, I can find my work for them immediately.

The other day I was talking to my friend and colleague, Matthew Brennan.  He’s a very well published poet.  I asked him if he ever submitted to online journals.  He shrugged and said, “Nah, I like how the journals look on my book shelf.”

And they do.  I can’t deny it.  I like the feel of them.  I even like how some of the issues containing my work have begun to yellow and grow brittle.  It was a big deal to me when my first story made it into print.  It took a lot of years for it to happen.  When I see that issue of Red Cedar Review on my shelf it’s like looking at the trophy I won for little league baseball.  When the journal first came out I didn’t give much thought to readers.  First and foremost I wanted to see my name in print.

Now I think more about an audience.  I have enough paper journals on my shelf; I want to be read.  For good or bad it’s simply easier to reach an audience with an online journal than with a paper one.  Besides, if someone likes my work, say in Superstition Review, they can click on the appropriate link, pony up $20, and in a week my book will be in their mail box.  Sure, journals containing your work look nice when you get them.  You know what else looks good?  Royalty checks.