I was so nervous submitting poems to the Carolina Quarterly in 1981 that I composed four slightly different versions of a cover letter, and—overcome by terrific anxieties and wanting to be done with the whole affair—hastily included all of them with my poems. Mercifully they were rejected, but the editor replied with four slightly different rejection letters. It was my first lesson in irony.
Later, I tried to bolster my natural shyness with unnecessary formalities or excessive personal details—anything—to scatter an editor’s eye from the real purpose of the submission, my poems and stories. In 1986, I wrote cover letters which included phrases like “Perhaps you saw the review of my short story in TheTimes” or “Let me tell you about my Uncle Turner…”No one liked the bobcat story as much as I did.
Each experience writing a cover letter came with its customary discomfort, but it was the only way to dress up my work which deep down I knew wasn’t crafty enough to stand without judicious ornaments in my jaunty greeting.
My not quite ready poems had interesting images but lacked any narrative thread to vouch them or the lyric motion that could make subject matter a little more interesting. My stories suffered similar problems. My characters were elaborate and new and strange, but to what end? They had no motivations other than their own interesting identities.
It was the era of photo-realism, long before Instagram, and long before similes had gone out of fashion.The little bit of success I had publishing a story and a few poems every year was enough to make me think I shouldn’t change anything. Although my work seemed consistently to be in the bottom third of various journals dented my enthusiasm for listing credits in my bio. To this day, I normally provide only three or four instead of two hundred.
Sometimes, I just like saying that my work has appeared in Plastic Tower and Industrial Decay Quarterly. For others I emphasize university magazines, or various online tigers like Entropy, to convey how up to date I am.
In 2011, I became an associate editor of Free State Review. I saw thousands of cover letters, saw every mistake I ever made writing a cover letter since I became old enough to drink, and fight, and smoke, and vote, and drive.
Our names are on the mastheads. It is nearly impossible not to find out exactly who we are and what we dig. Address your letter by name for the appropriate genre. It’s always useful for an editor to know how the publication became one you sought for your work.
Say a few words about your story—not a plot summation—or your poems, especially if they are part of a larger cluster, and include the title or titles of each. Think of it inviting the editor into your work without giving away the game. Academic and similarly professional credentials are better to imply, not advertise.
Share one or two personal details and mention some prior accomplishments. Note: an unseemly number of people have been nominated for a Pushcart. It would be better to withhold this information from a cover letter until you have been selected. Always close with some contact information.
The trend of full bio notes appearing in cover letters addressed to no one and broadcast to fifty markets is alarming, but only if you’re the sort of editor who is easily alarmed.
I am easily alarmed.
Let’s say you know the editor, then what? Nothing changes really. You both know that you know each other. Leave it at that. The advantage of knowing an editor is that it becomes easier to be precise in your cover letter about your work. The editor is mainly interested in clarity, not bandy banter.
The important thing to remember about being rejected by someone you know—and this happens to me quite a lot as a writer—no poem or story is worth a friendship.