I was so nervous submitting poems to the Carolina Quarterly in 1982 that I composed four slightly different versions of a cover letter and—overcome by brilliant anxieties and wanting to be done with the whole affair—I 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.
Since then, I have 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. In 1986, I wrote cover letters which included phrases like “Perhaps you saw the review of my short story in the Los Angeles Times” or “Let me tell you about my Uncle Turner…” But 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 cover letter.
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, when our professors still remembered having had a conversation or two with Faulkner and long before similes went 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. That my work seemed consistently to be in the bottom third of the publication lessened my enthusiasm for listing credits in my bio. To this day, I normally provide three or four instead of two hundred.
Sometimes, I just liked saying that my work had appeared in Plastic Tower and Industrial Decay Quarterly. Other times I emphasized university magazines, or various online tigers like Entropy to convey how up to date I was and my familiarity with the “machine.”
A few years ago I became an associate editor of Free State Review. For the first time in a thirty year career I saw thousands of cover letters. In the space of one month, August for the winter issue, and February for the summer issue, I saw every mistake I ever made since I became old enough to drink, and fight, and smoke, and vote, and drive.
For starters, editors are people. Our names are on the mastheads. Many of us have personal blogs. 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 as a way to invite the editor into your work without giving away the game. Academic and professional credentials are better to imply, not advertise. Like many writers, we editors tend to be egomaniacs with low self-esteem. It can be tricky receiving troubled work from someone touting lots degrees.
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 actually selected. Always close with some contact information.
The trend of full bio notes appearing in cover letters addressed to no one in particular and broadcast to fifty markets is alarming, but only if you’re the sort of editor who is easily alarmed.
I am easily alarmed.
Say you know the editor, then what? Nothing changes really. You both know that you know each other. Leave it at that. Skip the part where you upload photos of your kids at their high school graduations. The advantage of knowing an editor is that it becomes easier to be precise about your cover letter. The problem with submitting work to journals is how to strike a balance between Nathaniel Hawthorne’s cursed solitude and the need we all have to build relationships. 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.