06 March 2021

Cover Me--I'm Going In

As if we haven't seen enough blog posts lately about how to sell our fiction . . .

My topic today is cover letters. It came to mind after a Zoom session I attended recently about marketing short stories. We discussed everything from publications to guidelines to editors to contracts, but when we got to the Q&A part, a surprising number of questions were about cover letters. I guess that makes sense: these letters are our first contact with someone who might actually publish what we've written.

Bear with me, here. I realize you probably know most of this already. But if you don't, or if--like me--you sometimes need reminding, here are some essentials about cover letters for short-story submissions.

The first thing to remember: they're not query letters. A query letter is generally sent to (1) a publisher or agent of novels or nonfiction books or (2) an editor of articles, and its purpose is to ask those gatekeepers to allow you to submit something to them for consideration. A cover letter is for short fiction, not nonfiction, and it doesn't ask the editor if he/she wants to see the finished product; it accompanies the finished product, and serves as an introduction.

Having said that, here are some do's and don'ts:

1. Always send a cover letter unless guidelines tell you not to. Think of it as a courtesy. I've submitted a lot of short stories, and I can recall only a handful that were not accompanied by a cover letter.

2. Keep it short. Usually several brief paragraphs, and certainly less than a page.

3. If it's snailmailed, use a single-spaced, business-letter format.

4. If it's emailed, use your cover letter as the body of the message. I single-space mine, with no indentions, one space between paragraphs, and a less-formal comma instead of a colon after the salutation. If you're using an online submission system, type or copy your cover letter into the submission box at the publication's website. 

5. Use the editor's name--"Dear Ms. Martin"--and not just "Dear Editor." If you don't know the name, you can usually find it under "Masthead" or "Staff" or "About Us" at the publication's site.

6. Use Mr. or Ms. before the editor's last name. If you're not certain of the gender, use the full name with no Mr. or Ms. ("Dear Lee Bennett," "Dear Pat Cooper," "Dear Chris Anderson," "Dear J.T. Brown.")

7. Don't address the editor by only her first name until she has already addressed you by your first name in correspondence OR has signed correspondence to you using only her first name. After that, feel free to use first names only. The publishing business is pretty laid-back in this regard.

8. Mention any previous contact you might've had with the editor at a conference or elsewhere, especially if she suggested you send her a manuscript.

9. Include at least two paragraphs in your letter. I think the first should say "Please consider the attached story, 'Story Name,'" or "I have attached the short story 'Story Name' for your consideration," or words to that effect, followed by something like "I hope you'll want to use it in a future issue." The second paragraph is usually a short bio listing several writing credits and awards. If you don't yet have publication credits, mention instead any kind of writing experience you do have. If you include a third paragraph, just say something like "Thank you for your time."

10. Customize your bio to fit the publication you're submitting to. For example, Asimov's probably wouldn't care that you've been published in Woman's World, and literary magazines might not be impressed with genre credits of any kind. If I send something to a lit journal, I mention previous publication in places like Writer's DigestThe Lyric, and Pleiades; if I send to mystery magazines I mention AHMM, EQMM, Strand, etc.

11. Be honest in your bio, but give it the best possible spin. If the only things you've published are two short poems in obscure magazines and a tiny essay in The Paris Review, your bio should probably say, "My previous work has appeared in several publications, including The Paris Review." Truthful without being confession-booth revealing. 

12. Don't try to be cute or witty in your cover letter, or use funky fonts.

13. If submitting via snailmail, don't use fancy stationery. In fact, regular white copy-paper is fine.

14. Don't include a synopsis of your story, or say anything at all about the story or its plot, unless instructed to in the guidelines.

15. Don't mention anyplace else that might've rejected your story, or anything anyone else has said about it (good or bad). 

16. If you don't yet have any writing credits, don't point it out. Instead say something briefly in your bio about your job or your location. Before I'd published any stories, I said something like "I'm a former Air Force captain, I live in Mississippi, and I work for IBM." Bios, at any stage of your career, shouldn't be too wordy.

17. Don't mention how thrilled you would be to see your work in print.

18. Don't ask for comments, criticism, etc.

19. Don't say anything not relevant to your submission. The editor won't care how many cats you have, or that you belong to a quilting group, or that you enjoy hiking in the mountains. (Unless that's an integral part of the story you're submitting.)

20. Don't say anything about rights unless your story's a reprint. If it is a reprint, include in the first paragraph the date of previous publication and the publication's name and issue. ("This story previously appeared in the March/April 2001 issue of AHMM.") The only exception to that is if I'm trying to sell a story that I've already had published more than once. In that case I mention only its first publication and not any subsequent publications. ("This story originally appeared in the March/April 2001 issue of AHMM.")

NOTE 1: These "rules" are not set in stone. I'm well aware that there are other ways to get the job done. But I know this works.

NOTE 2: Something I used to always include in the third paragraph of my cover letters (it's laughable, now): "I've enclosed an SASE for your reply. If my story doesn't interest you, there's no need to return the manuscript itself." Let's hear it for electronic submissions.

In closing:

Dear SleuthSayers Reader,

Please consider the above blog post, "Cover Me--I'm Going In." A modified version appeared in the May 1999 issue of Byline Magazine. I hope you can use its information in your future submissions.

Current bio: John M. Floyd is the author of mostly short stories and SleuthSayers columns. His greatest recent accomplishment is receiving his second Covid vaccination.

Thank you for your time.

Best regards,

John Floyd 



  1. My mother really, really likes this story…

    Darn, I just sent out a submission that violated 7 and 8.

    A long time ago, I sent a story into WW and said I was best friends with John Floyd and RT Lawton. That name dropping got me… nowhere. Actually, it passed the first editor but not the one in charge.

    1. Leigh, Mom's blessing ought to be enough to get you accepted, right? How could she be wrong??

      As for your recent submission, since violating #8 implies that you didn't mention a prior meeting but you HAD a prior meeting, I think that forgives violating #7. This is making my head hurt . . .

      Hey, nothing wrong with name dropping--though you might now want to stay away from my name and RT's. As for those two editors, I too sometimes made it past the first gatekeeper only to get sent home by the second one. This is indeed an inexact science! If you figure it out, let me know.

  2. This is solid advice, John. Thanks. Last year, I submitted my first story to EQMM. I didn't know what the cover letter should look like, so I asked Josh Pachter for advice, and he did. The end result? Something along the lines of your criteria, John. It's always nice when experienced writers are willing to share their experience with us fledglings of short fiction. Thank you, John & Josh!

    Oh, and congratulations with your second Covid vaccination. In that respect you're way ahead of me too.

    1. Anne, I'm not surprised the JoshMan was able to help out, there--he's sold a boatload of stories to EQMM. As for my second Covid shot, we had to wait a bit until our age-group became eligible but then were able to hop in right away. My wife and I got our second vaccinations two weeks ago today. Hope you're able to get yours soon!

  3. Excellent advice. Electronic submissions - and letters- have certainly changed the business.

    1. Thank you, Janice. I can remember, and you might too, when we had to write and mail in a "request for guidelines" before we were even able to send a submission to a magazine. On top of that, we had to buy paper, envelopes, printer ribbons, etc., and then go stand in line at the post office and pay to mail it off. Good grief.

      I heard someone say the only problem with the fact that it's now so easy to submit a story to a publication is that it's now so easy to submit a story to a publication. In other words, it's so easy everybody's doing it, and the volume of submissions is higher. Probably right.

  4. Words of wisdom; and a great cover letter to boot! Thanks, John.

  5. Hey Eve! One thing in that closing cover-letter is true: this post really was a modified (and GREATly shortened) version of an article I sold to Byline Magazine more than twenty years ago. In that piece I really did say things like "remind the editor that you've enclosed an SASE," and "keep a copy of your cover letter," etc. As Janice said, electronic submissions have changed everything, and mostly for the better.

  6. For the past five months I've been receiving submissions for a magazine and three different anthologies, so I've seen nearly every possible variation of "good" and "bad" cover letters.

    One thing you've not covered, John, that applies to emailed submissions and not snail-mailed submissions is the text in the subject line.

    Some editors give specific instructions in their guidelines. For example, the editor asks for Author's Last Name-Story Title-Length, which translates to: Bracken-"My Best Story Ever"-3,400 words

    But many editors don't, so here's what my subject line usually looks like:

    SUBMISSION: "My Best Story Ever"

    If the submission is to an editor that I know works on multiple projects at the same time, I add a bit of specificity:

    Groovy Gumshoes SUBMISSION: "My Best Story Ever"

    BCMM SUBMISSION: "My Best Story Ever"

    And so on.

    This makes it easy for the editor to see at a glance that your email is a submission and not one of the dozens of other types of email she might receive on a given day.

    1. Good thought, Michael. I would suspect that you, an editor of both a magazine and anthologies, HAVE seen just about every kind of cover letter and every kind of cover-letter mistake.

      And you're right: many guidelines, yours included, contain specifics regarding the content of the subject line of a submission email. At the very least, doing it correctly tells the editor you've read the guidelines and can follow instructions.

      Even if the guidelines don't have anything to say about this, I always try to include the word SUBMISSION in there, for the reasons you mentioned.

      Many thanks!

  7. Thanks, O'Neil. I am of course preaching to the choir, with this post, but I truly have heard a lot of questions and misinformation about cover letters over the past several months.

    Keep up the great writing!

  8. John, LOL at your greatest recent accomplishment. Vaccination—priceless! Re cover letters, the only thing I do that you didn't mention is include the word count, eg I'm submitting my 4,550-word story, "The Vanishing Morgue," for your consideration.

    1. Hey Liz. Yep, glad to get that second shot. As for including the word count, I always put it at the top right of the first page of my manuscript, so I don't put it in the cover letter unless the publication asks for it there in their guidelines. But it sure can't hurt to do it anyway . . .

      Whatever works, right?

  9. Great points, and I envy you your latest achievement. If only.

  10. Thanks, Melodie. As I said to O'Neil, this is old hat to most of us--more of a reminder than anything. Hope you get those vaccinations soon, up there!!

  11. Yay on the vaccine, John! I was notified today that I can get the one-dose J&J shot first thing Monday morning. No cover letter required....

  12. PS: Anne van Doorn was too humble to mention that EQMM bought his (yes, his) story (probably mostly because of the excellent cover letter). Congratulations on the sale, Anne — and you’re welcome!

    1. Yes, congrats on the EQMM sale, Anne! Glad to hear about that.

    2. Thank you, John. Yeah, my submission led to a signed contract. And I'd also like to mention, Josh gave me some really good feedback on how to restructure my stories (originally written in Dutch--I'm from the Netherlands) and reduce the word count, in order to increase the chance of them being bought. I'm still a fledgling, but with a few friendly nudges I'm taking off. Oh, and I wouldn't have achieve this withouth my wonderful copy-editor, too. She's a fine Russian lady by the name of Barbina Goffmanova. I'm afraid she's not between what I type right now and your computer screen, so, if you stumble across my errors, please, bear with me! I need more nudges, while my wings are growing stronger!

    3. Oh, in case anyone is offended, I don't want to be disrespectful by using the name Barbina Goffmanova (in fact, my imagination got the better of me). She is, of course, none other than our very own Barb Goffman. I really appreciate her work and have a tremendous amount of respect for her. If you could only see my story with her track changes you would see why it is a humbling experience for me. I'm still hovering above the nest.

  13. Thank you, John. Apparently I messed up again, although I haven't yet received a rejection notice. I sent off a story last week to a literary magazine with a letter beginning, "Dear Editors: I enclose my 3,400-word historical crime story, _________, for your consideration," and stating the time frame & locations involved since it's a historical mystery. But guess what, I forgot to include any of my publication history & I actually do have some.

    I got my first Pfizer Covid vaccine injection yesterday & go back in three weeks for the second installment. My husband is only 61 so he isn't eligible to get the vaccine from the county, as I was. I still need to make an appointment for him with the VA health system.

  14. Elizabeth -- I expect you'll probably be fine, with that cover letter you sent. As I said, my so-called "rules" are mostly what **I** have found to be effective, and that doesn't mean they're always right. But I do encourage you to include publication credits in your letter next time. Good luck, by the way!

    My wife and I also received the Pfizer vaccine. I hope both you and your hubby will soon be fully vaccinated and fully protected. Now if we can just get enough folks vaccinated and keep the variants (and the incredibly stupid politicians and anti-mask folks) under control for awhile, maybe things'll improve everywhere.

    Keep sending in those stories!

  15. Thanks for the as always informative essay, John! I admit I use the terms "Query Letter" and "Cover Letter" pretty interchangeably; thanks for setting me straight! I've sent out a version of the same cover letter for ten years now, so I'll say there is nothing wrong with a form cover letter as long as you adapt it to each individual submission.

    1. Jeff, if the format you're using works, keep using it! (Just remember to change the name of the story and publication every time.)

    2. LOL! (No joke, even though I type these cover letters new each time, I always check the name of the story I'm sending out! Hey, I spelled "Editor" as "Edito;" one time!)

  16. Vaccine status will be updated as soon as I have one!

    1. Hope it'll come soon for you, Jeff. Stay safe.


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