September 10, 2012

The Art of the Literary Magazine Cover Letter

Last week, I received my first request of the season for a letter of recommendation. If you’re thinking “Wait, it’s only September” you’re right, it is awfully early. But that’s a good thing! Nothing aggravates mentors more than being asked to write a LOR a week before the deadline. I’ve had students ask for a letter of recommendation that needed to be submitted in two days! I’m pretty sure I refused. Anyway, for the most part, I agree when asked to write a recommendation; usually, I’m asked for a LOR by a student who I’ve had a good working relationship for a long time, a student whose work is good enough to be accepted at a graduate level but also needs graduate level study.

I’m particularly happy about this recent request because this student isn’t fresh out of his undergraduate program. He went and did a couple of other things, including travelling and making music and studying something completely different than writing. Here’s the thing that’s really impressive: he’s still writing fiction and has published several of his stories. The latter doesn’t matter all that much to me, but the fact that he has continued to write post-college speaks volumes for his drive and his energy as a writer. He’ll be a terrific addition to any graduate program that accepts him.

What, though, do I say in a letter of recommendation? In this case, writing this particular letter won’t be a chore. I’m not really worried about that. What I’m concerned about is the people on the other side, the professor-writers at various MFA programs who will read my letter and use it to make a determination on whether or not my student is accepted to their program. I also know that what they really are concerned with is the writing sample; some claim to look at the writing sample and the writing sample only, but I don’t know if that’s true. That also might mean a good LOR is, potentially, a tiebreaker.

The way my mind works, the Who and the What and the Why of letter writing always brings me back around to the letters I see most: cover letters at The Missouri Review. I’ve been sending out stories for almost a decade now. I’ve worked at three different literary magazines. I’ve seen thousands of cover letters. And, like the letters of recommendation I’m going to write this fall (likely several of them), I know they don’t matter at all and they matter a tremendous amount.

Every submission to a literary magazine should come with a cover letter. Unless a magazine specifically states in the guidelines they do not want a cover letter because they read blind (and some magazines do this), a cover letter should always be included with your submission. It’s like wearing a suit to an interview. A submission to a literary magazine is a professional transaction—treat it like one. Try showing up for a job interview in a Hawaiian shirt and basketball shorts. It probably won’t go well.

Cover letters should include all your contact information. Name, address, phone number, email, and the titles of your piece(s). This is pretty simple. After that, things get a little dicey.

Should the cover letter be addressed to a specific person? Dear Editors, Dear Editor, Dear Mr. Morgan, Dear Dr. Morgan, Dear Speer Morgan, Dear Dr. Speer Morgan, Dear Speer Laddie, To Whom It May Concern, Dear Intern Reading This, Dear Fiction Editors, Dear Fiction Editor, What’s Up Doc?, and so on … the possibilities may go on and on. Honestly? I can’t say any of these are wrong when sent to The Missouri Review. We’re going to read the work one way or the other. It does help to know if your submission is, say, fiction or nonfiction, but other than that, it really doesn’t matter. We understand. But there are magazines out there that will get their shorts in a knot if you don’t acknowledge the editors doctorate or spell a name right. Again: follow each magazine’s specific guidelines.

Should there be a subject line? Something like “RE: Fiction Submission” or “RE: ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ – fiction submission'”? This does help our office staff. This makes getting your work to the correct reader easier. But, it doesn’t make a huge difference.

What most worries writers, I think, is the body of the letter. What to say? What if the writer knows the staff? How well? What if the writer is unpublished? What if the writer has published dozens of pieces? And so on.

Short and sweet is really the way to go here. Including every magazine you’ve ever published in is probably overkill: mention four to six places, and then move on. Don’t explain what your story is “doing”: we’ll figure that out when we read it. Don’t be too clever or cute. Yeah, if you’ve had some interaction with us—an encouraging rejection, met us at AWP, liked a story from a previous issue—definitely say so, but again, don’t spend a ton of time on this: two or three sentences will do it.

That’s really it. If you’ve never been published before? Say so. “If accepted, this would be my first published story.” All literary magazines love being the one to publish a writer for the first time, so acknowledging this possibility can only help.

A professional cover letter is all we ask, and even minus that, if the work is excellent, we don’t really care. We want to publish the best work we read, regardless of whether or not you’re an emerging writer or an established one. So: Our guidelines are here—fire when ready! We’ll be here, reading and reading and reading.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

About Michael

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review. His writing has appeared in Boulevard, Epoch, Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Kenyon Review, among others. His first story collection, STRATEGIES AGAINST EXTINCTION, is available on Queen's Ferry Press. Visit him online at mpnye.com

12 Responses to The Art of the Literary Magazine Cover Letter

  1. Thank you, this is quite helpful. I have noticed that when submitting to some of the online publications (digital only, that is) that the guidelines tend to be lax, with few even requiring a cover letter. It is helpful for me to think about a submission as a “professional transaction”, no matter the reputation of the lit mag.

    Has any of your staff at MR had a chance to write about the various kinds of literary magazines out there and perhaps explain where the different types fall on the spectrum of literary prestige?

    • Michael says:

      Glad we could be a help, Anthony. Lax guidelines may be because an editorial staff just doesn’t want to dissuade anyone from submitting.

      We haven’t taken a stance as to where different mags fall on the spectrum of prestige. Online, I’m sure you can find a listing of what magazines have had the most reprints in, say, Best American or The Prize Stories, which might be a good loose rule of thumb. Mostly, though, I’d suggest submitting to the type of magazines you love to read. You’ll be happiest placing your work there, I’m sure!

  2. Joshua Pasternak says:

    This is helpful. What I found most interesting is that the Guide to Literary Agents specifically advises not to mention in your cover letter if you’re unpublished, whereas you suggest it could be beneficial in this case. But I understand that agent guidelines & lit mag guidelines can be different, so I appreciate your advice.

    • Michael says:

      Yeah, I’ve read those guidelines, and I can see the point being made: you don’t want to come across as an amateur. We just have a slightly different perspective on it. Glad to hear this has helped.

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  4. Bishop says:

    Does putting your bio in the proper area in Submittable or in the other submission system count? Or do you only want a cover letter that is the first page of the manuscript?

    • Michael says:

      Can’t say for sure because we don’t use Submittable. But my guess is that if there is space for the bio, go ahead and put it all there rather than on the first page of the manuscript.

  5. Shelley says:

    As Joshua Pasternak implies above, I think that, unlike Missouri Review, many magazines would be afraid to publish someone who hadn’t been published before.

    Your concern about letters of recommendation is admirable; when I’m asked to write them for my college students, my main worry is how to use language that will cut through all the usual ways-to-disguise-what-you-really-mean, as well as the wearying hyperbole.

    • Michael says:

      I often think about what the reader of my LOR wants to hear and know. I think “literary citizenship” and being a hard worker (Ben Percy is a great example of this) is really important for an incoming MFA student. And I tend to be a cheerleader for my students, which can be … overblown. And, yes, cutting out all the hyperbole takes me a long time! Which probably isn’t a bad thing at all.

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