How to Write a Proper Short Story Cover Letter

As an editor I see a lot of bad cover letters. I can’t help but think folks are following some bad advice out there, so I wrote a thing that might help. It’s long and it’s a little ranty and cranky (because I’ve seen a lot of bad cover letters in the last month), but I hope it will also be helpful.

Note that this advice is specific to genre magazines and anthologies and short fiction. Novel submissions play by a different set of rules, and there may be a slightly different etiquette in literary submissions and other genres. But, if you write and submit science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories, the following essay is for you.

How to Write a Proper Short Story Cover Letter

The most important fact to remember about cover letters is this: the best cover letter in the world is not really going to help you sell your story.

An impressive list of awards and pro credits might–on a rare occasion–entice a slush reader who’s already on the fence about a submission to bump it up to the editor. An editor or first reader might delve a little deeper into the story before they give up because your previously listed sales have demonstrated a certain level of competency. But, beyond that, the story is going to sink or swim on its own.

However, a bad cover letter is at least as likely–perhaps more likely–to undermine your chances. It can clue in the editor that you’re new and inexperienced or, worse yet, that you’ve settled for being published in mediocre markets. (More on that below.) And if you manage to really put a foot in your mouth, you may end up with whoever is reading the story actively rooting against you.

The cases where the cover letter will sway things either way are rare. Some of the industry’s top editors wisely ignore cover letters altogether; they read the story first so whatever you put in the cover letter doesn’t pre-bias them either way. But not all editors do that. And since a good cover letter is really easy to write, why not give yourself that tiniest extra edge?

Let’s begin by talking about some of the most common mistakes one finds in cover letters. I write this at the tail end of a month-long submission window where my associate editors and I received nearly 640 submissions. Although the letter below is 100% fake, virtually every mistake and problem it features showed up in one or more of the cover letters I saw this month alone.

Without further ado, here’s a terrible cover letter:

Clueless Writer
123 Main Street
Cleveland, OH 44101
216-555-1212
c.writer@email.com

Attn: Mrs. Jane Smith, Editor

Dear Mrs. Smith,

I’m submitting my short story “Traveling Back in Time to Kill Hitler” to be considered for publication in your magazine, Time Travel Tales. It is formatted in Standard Manuscript Format and saved as an RTF file as per your guidelines. It is an original story not previously published anywhere and it is not on submission elsewhere.

This story is about a pair of scientists who invented a time machine and decided to to travel back to 1905 and kill young Hitler while he’s trying to make it as an artist in Vienna. They wrestle with the moral dilemma of killing a man before he committed any crimes as well as with the potential pitfalls of a scientific paradox his death would cause. In a surprise twist ending, they decide not to kill Hitler and go home.

I am a graduate of DeVry University where I earned my MFA. I then studied physics at Phoenix University Online and earned a PhD. My thesis was on time travel paradoxes. I’m also a Taekwondo black belt, and an award-winning cat breeder.

I’ve been previously published in For the Luv Review, Cat Breeder Quarterly, Obscure magazine, The Poetry Digest, Daily Movie Reviews website, and the comments section of the Cleveland Times.

This manuscript is a disposable copy.

Sincerely,

Clueless Writer

Let us now examine this bit by bit:

Clueless Writer
123 Main Street
Cleveland, OH 44101
216-555-1212
c.writer@gmail.com

Attn: Mrs. Jane Smith, Editor

1985 called and it wants its business correspondence formatting back. Your contact information should appear at the top of your manuscript, and while there are still a small handful of markets that ask you to include it in the cover letter as well, most don’t. Unless they specifically ask for it, don’t duplicate it in the cover letter, and certainly don’t include “Attn:” or “From the desk of” lines they may have taught you about in eleventh grade typewriter class. The first line of your cover letter should be the salutation.

Dear Mrs. Smith

At the very least, this should be addressed to Ms. Smith because she’s the editor and not merely an extension of her husband. If you know who the editors are, generally address the most senior editor at the market. Dear Ms. Smith or Dear Jane Smith would do nicely. But, really, Dear Editor(s) will do just as well. You could even go with my personal favorite (and a form of address I’ve actually seen in my slush pile): Gentlebeings. If you use any of these, you avoid the possibility of misgendering your correspondent, misspelling their name (Shvartsman here; I know a thing or two about that), and maybe sidestep the effort of trying to decipher the hierarchy of a specific market.

Most editors won’t care, but unless you’ve communicated with the editor in the past and they signed their e-mail to you with their first name, it’s marginally better to avoid addressing them by their first name (aka Dear Jane.) For the record though, “Dear Alex” is fine by me.

Moving on:

I’m submitting my short story “Traveling Back in Time to Kill Hitler” to be considered for publication in your magazine Time Travel Tales. It is formatted in Standard Manuscript Format and saved as an RTF file as per your guidelines. It is an original story not previously published anywhere and it is not on submission elsewhere.

The same rule applies to cover letter as does to fiction: don’t overwrite. Before you include any specific bit of information, ask yourself: is this necessary and relevant?

Jane Smith knows that the name of her magazine is Time Travel Tales. She can reasonably make an assumption that you’re sending the story to be reviewed for publication there. If Time Travel Tales asks that you format your story in SMF (Standard Manuscript Format) and does not accept reprints or simultaneous submissions, then she will assume your story is neither a reprint nor a simultaneous submission, because you’re a human being who is capable of reading and processing information stated in her guidelines.

Which brings us to my personal favorite: writers letting me know that they formatted the manuscript in RTF or DOC or whatever, as specified in the guidelines. First, again, I know which formats are requested in my own guidelines. And second, I can see your file right there. Either you formatted it correctly, in which case I don’t need a reminder as I will not be awarding you a gold star for this since we aren’t in kindergarten, or you sent me a PDF, ZIP file or some other strange beast I didn’t ask for, and then we have a different problem altogether.

This story is about

If you follow any advice at all from this text, let this be it: Do not summarize your story in your cover letter. Let me repeat that.

Do not.

Summarize.

Your Story.

In your cover letter.

This practice likely comes from the world of novel query letters where you do have to summarize your book in a few paragraphs. However, this need does not translate to short fiction. Virtually every editor I know hates when authors do this with a passion.

We want your story to speak for itself. We don’t want any sort of a preview, a summary, or anything else that will spoil it in some way. In fact, when I see a sentence that opens with “This story is about” I immediately skip to the next paragraph. So please, do yourself a favor and don’t include one.

Once in awhile, a market will actually ask you to include a summary. And while I don’t really get how this is helpful to them, always abide by what the guidelines say over what I write here.

Having said this, it can occasionally be helpful to include the story’s genre and length, especially for markets that review different genres. It may help the editor assign it to the right reader or to budget proper amount time to review it themselves. So it’s perfectly okay to say “Please consider my dark fantasy story” or “Enclosed is a steampunk flash fiction story of 900 words.) Just don’t get into the details of plot and sure as hell don’t tell the editor how wonderful and great your story is.

There’s one other notable exception to talking about your story in the cover letter, and we’ll cover it in the next section. Or, perhaps you can spot it in the next paragraph yourself.

I am a graduate of DeVry University where I earned my MFA. I then studied physics at Phoenix University Online and earned a PhD. My thesis was on time travel paradoxes. I’m also a Taekwondo black belt, and an award-winning cat breeder.

Generally, you should not include your non-writing related accomplishments in the cover letter unless your experience directly correlates to what the story is about. In our example, the author is absolutely right to mention their physics background and their thesis. It is directly relevant to the story they are submitting and to Time Travel Tales as a market. The other tidbits, however, should not be included unless the author is presenting a story about a Taekwondo tournament or about breeding cats.

So yeah, if you’re a NASA scientist mention that in your space exploration story. If you’re a history professor, this will be relevant if you’re writing historical fantasy. If you write a story set in Japan and you have lived in Japan for a few years, you can mention that. But your advanced degree in Windchime Studies is likely not helpful when trying to sell a cyberpunk story.

Then there’s my personal pet peeve, and that’s authors mentioning their MFA (a creative writing degree) in their cover letters. To me, this is an equivalent of saying “trust me, I write good” and is not relevant to your story, unless it happens to be about an MFA program. In fact, seeing this in a cover letter almost always correlates to something I can quit reading after a page because the writing is subpar.

Which is not to say MFAs are bad, or writers with MFAs are bad. It’s just that the good writers with MFAs do not generally feel the need to include this particular accomplishment in their cover letters.

The other thing that is perfectly okay (but unnecessary) to include are your professional writing association memberships: SFWA, HWA, and the like. Instead, focus on including your publishing credits and awards or achievements in creative writing, if any.

I’ve been previously published in For the Luv Review, Cat Breeder Quarterly, Obscure magazine, The Poetry Digest, Daily Movie Reviews website, and the comments section of the Cleveland Times.

First of all, let me say that listing no publishing credits if you don’t have them will never hurt you. It’s even okay to say you’re a new/unpublished writer. Really! Every editor I know loves discovering new talent and loves being the first to publish someone, or first to publish someone in a pro venue. No one is going to hold a lack of past credits against you.

It’s also perfectly fine if you’re new and you only have a couple of token credits to your name. Although I advise authors not to submit anywhere that pays less than semi-pro rates, that’s a different topic and a couple of token credits won’t hurt you. There are two things that can hurt you, however:

First, listing a ton of credits that are all lower on the totem pole than the place you’re submitting to. When a pro editor sees a list of twenty non-paying or token-paying markets they won’t be impressed. In fact, this will have the opposite effect as the editor might assume that you either can’t write work publishable at better venues or, worse yet, you’ve settled for the minor leagues and aren’t seriously trying to improve your writing. Either way, you’ve just pre-biased the editor/first reader against your work. So, even if you have 20+ small credits, only list three or four of them.

In fact, even if you have 20+ professional credits, only list three or four of them anyway. Name-dropping your top 3 markets is better for establishing your bona fides than name-dropping your top 10 markets.

The second way to torpedo your chances is to mix in your non-fiction credits with your fiction credits to make the overall list more impressive. It’s cool if you wrote an article for Clarkesworld, had a poem published in Strange Horizons or a book review at Apex magazine. You can even include those credits in your cover letter if you really want to. But if the editor thinks you’re intentionally trying to obfuscate things by bundling them with your actual fiction credits with statements like “I’ve been published at For-the-Luv Review, Obscure magazine, and Clarkesworld” they will notice that one of these things is not like the others, use their Google-fu, and then they will raise an eyebrow.

This manuscript is a disposable copy.

This is a thing I actually saw in a cover letter this year.

Back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and the price of return postage for a stack of typewritten pages was cheaper than the cost of photo-copying an extra set, some authors wanted their rejected manuscripts back. Magazines required that these authors include a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) either way, and enough postage if you wanted your precious pages back (coffee stains optional.) If you didn’t want them back, it was expected to mention in the cover letter that the manuscript copy you included was disposable. In fact, I remember doing this as recently as a couple of years ago, until F&SF became the last of the respectable genre ‘zines to stop requiring print submissions.

Fast forward to today. All submissions are electronic. (Some venues still accept print subs, but if you’re reading this, you probably aren’t among the authors who avail themselves of this option.) So, what is the point of adding this line to the cover letter? None, other than blindly following conventions from the bygone era.

To summarize, your cover letter should be short.

In e-mail cover letters include story title, genre (if applicable), length, and any relevant credits/awards. Consider including word count in email header as this may be helpful to the editors as they often choose to read stories based on how much free time they have available.

In webform that already makes you fill in the basic info, stick to credits/relevant info; no need to repeat info from the form’s fields.

Optimal cover letter for Clueless Writer submitting to Time Travel Tales would be:

Dear Editor,

Please consider “Traveling Back in Time to Kill Hitler” (SF, 3000 words).

My short fiction has appeared in For the Luv review and Obscure magazine.

I have a physics PhD from Phoenix University Online. My thesis was on time travel paradoxes.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Clueless Writer
ClulessWriter’sHomepageURL.com

It’s simple, it’s basic, and it highlights the relevant accomplishments this writer has.

This is the actual cover letter I currently use:

Dear Editor Name,

Please consider Story Title (SF, 2000 words).

I’m the winner of the 2014 WSFA Small Press Award for Short Fiction and a finalist for the 2015 Canopus Award for Excellence in Interstellar Writing. Over 80 of my short stories have appeared in Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and other venues.

Thanks very much in advance for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Alex
www.alexshvartsman.com

If anything, I feel like mine is on the longish side. Note the URL at the end of the letter. If they really care about my other credits or just want to make sure I’m not unhinged lunatic who writes 3000-word rants about cover letters on his blog (Ahem!), they can click through. But, chances are, they won’t. Because this cover letter has, hopefully, done its job of introducing me briefly and will not get in the way of the story.

Which is, really, all you can ask of an optimal cover letter.
#SFWAPro

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I’ll be presenting a workshop on the business of short fiction at Balticon, where in addition to talking cover letters I’ll discuss contract review and negotiations, the etiquette of queries, finding viable markets for your work and submission strategies, reprint and foreign rights, and much more. The funds raised by this and other workshops will go to support Balticon 50 and there are great many other reasons to attend this convention. Check out mine and other premium workshops here.

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9 Responses to How to Write a Proper Short Story Cover Letter

  1. Martin L. Shoemaker says:

    Small note: I once heard a couple of editors at a con disparaging cover letters with a generic “Dear Editors”. Maybe they were the exception; but after that, I always do the research to include the editor’s name.

    • Alex Shvartsman says:

      I’d say there’s an exception to most of what I’m saying above. 🙂 Knowing the name of the head editor is nice and one should use it, but if it’s unclear, “Dear Editor” is preferable to getting it wrong. And some markets, like Strange Horizons, actually prefer this salutation.

  2. Sara says:

    This was very helpful! I have notice there are some exceptions, but usually those markets say so directly on their website or even include examples of what they think are good cover letters. Shimmer even tweets regular complaints about submissions that don’t follow their guidelines.

    The one thing that surprised me in this was you saying that it might be better to have no credits than a long list of non-paying ones. Usually after a story gets 4 or 5 paid rejections, I down grade to “whatever market take sim subs and look like the might like the story” regardless of pay. I might be more selective for here on out. I need to be more persistent with paid markets.

    Thank you!

    • Alex Shvartsman says:

      Hi Sara,

      What I suggest is only listing your best credits. If you happen to have a lot of small market credits that’s okay, but don’t list more than 3 or 4 of them as it will not impress the editors (for the reasons I discussed above.) Also, downgrading your submission to token venues after only 4-5 rejections may be too fast. I’ve sold stories to pro or higher-tier semi-pro venues even after 20+ rejections. It only takes one editor who will love the story to find it a home!

  3. cjaybee says:

    Sage advice, sir. Sage advice…thanks.

  4. fjbergmann says:

    One other caveat: I edit for a number of different venues, and it helps me immensely when the cover letter specifies the name of the publication submitted to. Obviously, this is not necessary via submissions managers or e-mail addresses in the form of “editor@____mag.com.”

    • Alex Shvartsman says:

      Good point. I suppose this depends on the method of the submission. If it’s a web form tied to a specific magazine/project, one probably doesn’t need to name the venue, but if it goes to the editor’s e-mail address then it might be helpful.

      • Martin L. Shoemaker says:

        Unless I have a good relationship with the editor, my standard opening is:

        ——–

        Dear [NAME],

        Attached please find “[STORY]” (approximately [COUNT] words) for your consideration for [MARKET].

        ——–

        I paste it in, edit it, double check to be sure I edited right, and move on to my recent/top credits in the next paragraph. It saves me from having to think too much.

  5. Neil Clarke says:

    I read the cover letter last. It has now switched from something that might put me off a story to something that might encourage me to give it a second chance.

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