Submitting a story? Here’s what NOT to put in your cover letter.

In my spare time, I’m a slush-pile reader for Sanitarium Magazine. If you send in a submission, I guarantee I’ll read it at some point. (I see everything.) And while I’m not the decision maker, I see some recurring trends in cover letters that really, really need to stop.

1. “This story will scare you/thrill you/chill you to the bone like never before!”

Yeah…no. You, the writer, don’t decide that. I, the reader, do. I understand that you’re proud of your work, but you’re just giving it an unnecessary hype. I have yet to read a submission with that line in its cover letter that did not utterly fail to meet expectations. In fact, just seeing that sort of phrase makes me lower my expectations in advance.

2. “I have an MFA from [university].”
This smacks of pretentiousness, just a bit. You’d think being a writer with an MFA would ensure doors just open to you everywhere, right? No, wrong, sorry. You still have to be able to do things like construct a scene properly, write dialogue that indicates the speakers clearly, show your research, and have a more-than-basic grasp of grammar and punctuation. Moreover, an MFA is unlikely to be the sort of degree that’s at all relevant to your story’s subject matter–unless your degree is in, say, sculpture and your narrator is a sculptor. MFA-bearing authors have provided me with some of the worst things I’ve ever read.
3. “This can’t be cut, it’s my masterpiece!!!1!”
I saw this phrase, almost word for word, in a recent cover letter. Again, you wrote a thing and you love it, and you think other people should love it too. I’m a writer; I understand that. I want people to love my things too. Unfortunately, what comes across with that statement is “I’m too good for an editor,” and honey, let me tell you, no one is that good. Ever notice how many different versions of the Bible there are? That’s because even God needs an editor. Now here, take this ladder and get over yourself.
It’s simple, really. If you’re writing a cover letter for a fiction submission, the best thing to do is just say, “This is the title of the thing I wrote. This is its word count. Here’s a brief summary of the plot.” Feel free to list publication credits if you have them, but don’t expect anyone to be impressed by them. Trust me. Keep it simple, and the people who read your story will thank you.
….or at least be slightly more inclined to take you seriously.

6 thoughts on “Submitting a story? Here’s what NOT to put in your cover letter.

  1. I agree with you, for the most part. However, your point 2 really surprised me. Perhaps query/cover letters are different in magazine and book publishing–the consesus in the book publishing industry is that prospective writers should definitely mention relevant experience, like participation in a creative writing MFA program. What’s more likely to cause their query to be rejected is if they mention irrelevant experience, like a PhD in astrophysics when their book is about World War II.

    1. Oh, I totally agree. For book publishing, especially nonfiction, education is entirely relevant and should be so. For a fiction magazine like the one I read for–which has open submissions, so queries aren’t necessary–for the most part, that kind of experience doesn’t matter, or at least isn’t asked for, although I’ve seen submission calls from a few short-fiction markets that have said “don’t bother giving us your educational background if it’s not relevant to your story,” in so many words. Maybe it’s to do with the sheer amount of material received; at Sanitarium we get probably 200-300 submissions a month, if not more, so we’re pressed to read for story quality first, author background later.

      I probably should have been clearer. My problem’s not with people who put their educational status in their cover letter; it’s with the ones who write the letter in such a way that lets me know they expect automatic acceptance *because* of their degree (and then submit a manuscript full of run-on sentences and bad punctuation).

      As an aside, I even read a submission earlier this month in which the cover letter said something to the effect of “This isn’t my market of choice, so if you’re not going to accept it, let me know within X days.” I think it was 17-19 days, something like that–but if that’s how you feel, about a publication, why submit there in the first place?

      1. Oh, yes, the arrogant ones are definite the worst. I once got a query from a guy who wrote thrillers, which the literary agent I worked for at the time didn’t represent. I explained as much to him, and he responded, “Get back to me when you’re ready to stop being a loser.” I mean, come on.

      2. Seriously? Oh, my God. How hard would it have been for him to have done research and found an agent that represented that genre? (Preferably without being rude!)

      3. Even with more mainstream publishing, it really largely depends on the literary agent you submit to or the genre you’re writing. For example:

        -I query a literary agent that handles non-fiction with a proposal for a self-help book on dieting, and mention in the cover letter that I’m a personal trainer with clients like Kate Celebrity, and that I have a TV spot every week on the Health Channel or some such, and I have a PhD in Dietary something or other.

        This is a valid use of credentials like a degree – I’m trying to sell myself not only as an author here, but as a reputable authority on subject X. Stating that I have a PhD in X establishes I know what the heck I’m talking about.

        -I query a literary agent about a non-fiction history book on the secret lives of the Emperors of Japan, and mention an Master degree in Japanese pre-modern history obtained from X university.

        This is again a good use of credentials, reassuring the literary agent that I know what I’m talking about, and have been trained in researching and writing about history.

        Degrees are MARVELOUS for non-fiction books, because they establish credentials quickly. They show you’re qualified to talk about, analyze, or offer advice on a subject.

        Where I think the confusion sets in for some writers is when they see the author blurbs on the backs of covers/inside back flap of the dust jacket. A lot of these, especially in the “literary” genre, boast authors with MFA’s in creative writing. This sticks the pervasive thought in people’s heads that as an author, an MFA equals street cred in publishing. (And MFA programs kind of need steady streams of these people to continue to exist and make money, so they sell this idea *hard*.)

        As far as I’ve seen, heard, read, and experienced, this is by and large utter nonsense.

        You put an MFA in your book’s bio because it’s a bio. It has nothing to do with street cred and publishing. Timothy Zahn writes sci-fi, and his bio mentions a Master’s degree in Physics. No MFA whatsoever rears its head, yet Zahn has over 40 books in print and makes a lot of money writing. Stating what you’ve done in a bio is normal, and a great place for that MFA name-dropping. A cover letter is not.

        I have seen agents state explicitly that they DO NOT have a separate slush pile for MFA’s. What is credibility for a non-fiction book simply doesn’t translate well to a fiction book. Publishing houses do not care about MFA’s, because as statistics have shown them, MFA’s do not indicate how much money a book is likely to make them.

        Case in point: J.K. Rowling. E. L. James. David Weber. Stephanie Meyers. Kafka.

        None of them had an MFA. None. And Kafka was even *gasp* literary, instead of the dreaded *genre* fiction.

        And all of them have made publishers a HELL of a lot of money. You simply don’t need one to write, and write well, and many, many unfortunate souls finish their MFA programs and still can’t “write”. Case in point – several of the local MFA programs in my state are chaired by MFA holders who published their most recent book over twenty years ago and can’t seem to get anything published since.

        Why on earth are people running MFA programs if they’ve only written a small handful of books, and none of them received critical acclaim? (Or even a decent-sized reading audience?) And why should a student pay $30,000 or more to learn from them? An MFA can absolutely be useful, but it simply can’t guarantee that you will be able to tell a captivating story by the time you graduate. And most MFA’s do not accept “genre” writers at all (i.e. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Romance).

        MFA’s in creative writing simply don’t serve as a consistent judge of whether a book will make a publisher money. And publishing is ALL about the money. Anybody who claims otherwise is selling a load of crap. Since it’s not a reliable marker that screams NEXT BESTSELLING AUTHOR RIGHT HERE!, it’s generally ignored by literary agents, and 9 times out of 10, those are the gatekeepers you must impress to get in front of an editor. (There are other benefits to agents as well, such as someone to clap a hairy eyeball of experience on any contracts you sign with Major Publishing House X.)

        I would advise any hopeful author to carefully examine the submission guidelines. If they state they want to know about MFA’s, great. Put it in there. You should absolutely, ABSOLUTELY follow submission and cover letter guidelines religiously.

        But to quote Janet Reid, (an excellent Literary Agent who handles hundreds of submissions every day), “A good cover letter is better proof of your ability to write books that will sell than an MFA.” She also explicitly states that she doesn’t care about an MFA in creative writing nearly as much as any prior works you might have gotten published.

        This may be different for literary submissions, but as far as I’ve seen with genre, it just doesn’t seem to matter much in getting a foot in the door.

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