Thursday, April 12, 2018

Submitting Your Story: The Cover Letter

By Steve Weddle

From my LitReactor class lecture on writing a cover letter when submitting your short story:

If you’re writing a sci-fi story, you probably don’t want to submit to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. That’s a fairly easy call for you, I hope. Don’t send your private eye noir to Analog, either. But what about Hudson Review? What do they want? What tone do their stories hit? What’s the feel of the magazine? How are stories in the Georgia Review different from those in the Kenyon Review? From Carve?

Some magazines post sample stories online. Check these out, but don’t let them substitute for reading the magazine itself. Of course, if you’re talking about an e-zine, you’re in better shape.

I’m still surprised at how many people submit to magazines without ever looking at them. If you’re serious about your writing – and you are or you wouldn’t be here -- you’re going to want to find the best home for it. You don’t want to have a story you’ve been working on until midnight for three months straight going to an eight-page, saddle-stitched rag with an MS Paint cover.

What if you can’t afford to subscribe to fifteen magazines? Well, then you’re a normal person, because, damn, that gets pricey.

One thing you can do is sample issues, which are usually a little less expensive than the current issue. A word of warning. Don’t get a sample issue from five years back, because editors might have changed, tastes might have shifted.

If you’re near a university library, you’re in good shape as most of those still subscribe to literary magazines. If you’re relying on a public county or town library, you may be less fortunate.
Another option, which I’ve done, is to go in with friends, subscribing to different magazines, then trading once you’re done. A handful of people swapping five or six subscriptions can help build your understanding of the industry.

The Writer’s Market books are valuable resources, too. Check out the short story market books. Often, last year’s edition will go on sale at a steep discount when the new one gets close. I’ve found that a year-old short story marketplace book is usually fairly up-to-date, though you should always check everything – names of editors, reading periods – against the magazine’s website or current issue.

You can also enter writing contests at a literary magazine. I think that’s how I ended up with a two-year subscription to the Iowa Review years ago. You pay your ten bucks to enter the contest and they consider your work and send you their issues. Works great for everyone, as long as you watch the money. Some contests charge $25 to enter and offer a $500 prize. I avoid these as the ratio of fee to reward seems too high to me.

At Needle: A Magazine of Noir, we got wonderful stories about spies in Argentina, famine in Thailand, and once, so help me, unicorns on Planthar. I kid you not. The stories, with the exception of the famine story, were well done. The problem is that they weren’t for us.

Roughly twenty percent of the stories we get at Needle are about private dicks and squirrely dames, falling deeper into some mystery while Peter Lorre waits just off-stage. We’re not specifically looking for period pieces. We’re not a historical magazine any more than Georgia Review is the home for your story set in Georgia. While the Georgia Review might publish a story set in Georgia, that isn’t what the magazine is going for. You have to read the magazine. You have to get a feel for the tone. You have to do your homework.

Sending your short story to a list of magazines without doing your homework is like walking into a bar and offering to do “anything” for five bucks. Or applying to a hundred colleges.

You want to be associated with a good magazine, because you’ve worked hard on your story. You want your story to find the right home. Let’s be honest about it – you’ve probably worked your butt off if you’re ready to send it out. So when your story is ready, make sure you’ve done your homework.

When you’re ready, you need to think about what magazine you want to walk to the mailbox for and open and see your name right there on the table of contents. What link you want to send around to people to say, “Hey, thought you’d like to know about my story at this site.”

And, when you’ve picked the right spot, you’ll need to write that cover letter. A couple thoughts on that ->

You’ll want to address the letter to the editor and offer a quick sentence about why you picked this magazine and why you think your story is a good fit.

“I have enjoyed your last few issues and thought you might find my 2,500-word Elizabethan romance a good fit.”

Of course, you’ve worked months on the story. The last thing you want to do is mess up your bio, right? How silly would that be?

If this is the first real story you’re sending off, then I'd encourage you NOT to say "This is my first real story" or "I've only been writing for eleven days." You've been reading and writing for years.
Sometimes at Needle, we’d get a cover letter that will say something like "This is my first attempt at writing a story. I hope you like it." Please, don't do that. The editor doesn't want to look at your first story. It would be like opening a restaurant and saying "I've never baked a pie before. Won't you try my first attempt?"

In my experience, the writers with the least confidence tend to send in the biggest bios.

If you’re Stephen King or Janet Evanovich, you’re not going to list every publication you’ve ever been in. If you’re John Ryan Stumblebuns, you probably will.

GOOD: Jessica Smith is a short story writer and the recipient of the J. Henry Albert Award for Short Fiction. Her work has recently appeared in Cathode Quarterly and The Imagist. She lives in Chicago.
BAD: Jessica Smith has been writing since she was seven years old. Her first story, “The Trouble with Ruff-Ruff” was published in her family’s Christmas newsletter. She attended Holy Oak College and received a BA in History with a minor in French. During her time at Holy Oak, she was also editor of the literary magazine, Holy Oak Leaves Review, and volunteered at a local pet clinic. Her work has appeared at more than 100 websites, including,, and She lives in a small, teal bungalow outside Las Vegas, with her husband, two dogs, three fish, and a troublesome cat called Mr. Whiskers.

As with everything, THE STORY you write is the most important thing here. Editors will discount some silliness and unprofessionalism in a cover letter, but you want to give the editors fewer reasons to skip past you.

No editor ever has passed on a great story because the author’s bio was too brief. Many editors have skipped a decent story because the writer’s bio made the writer sound like an amateur.

Bonus Linkage:

Another take on Author Bios: No One Cares About Your Life Story: 9 Tips for a Better Author Bio
Stories this editor is tired of seeing: Things I’m tired of seeing in lit mag submissions 
Upcoming LitReactor Courses:

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