4 Mistakes You’re Making in Your Cover Letter

As a reader at The Masters Review, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to cover letters.

Although no two cover letters are exactly alike, there are certain mistakes that seem to surface over and over again. But are cover letters important? Do these mistakes matter?

“I always tell writers that the purpose of the cover letter is to convey you're professional and knowledgeable,” says Carve Executive Editor Matthew Limpede. “The cover letter alone doesn't make or break a story's acceptance, but it can influence an editor's willingness to engage and work with that individual, whether for feedback, encouragement to submit again, or editing the piece with an eye on publishing it.”

As a reader, I personally enjoy reading the cover letter before the submission. It gives me a brief glimpse of the living, breathing person on the other side of Submittable. However, every reader approaches the cover letter differently – some read them before the submission, some after, and some not at all.  

“I usually skim the cover letter before reading a story, which can sometimes affect my decision to send it on to the reading committee if I'm unsure of the quality of the writing,” says Carve Senior Fiction Editor Rita Juster. “My experience though has been that exceptional stories don't come with bad cover letters. In those rare instances when they do, I grit my teeth and go with the story.”

Adds Carve Resident Reader John Henry Fleming, “The cover letter never decides the fate of the submission, but bad cover letters are often a sign of poor audience awareness, and a common mistake can give a bad first (or last) impression.”

So, if you want to make the best impression possible on the readers and editors devoting their time and attention to your work (and who doesn't?), here are four mistakes to avoid when drafting your next cover letter:

Mistake #1: Explaining What Your Story Is About

Please, please, please, do not tell us what your story or poem is about. The work you're submitting needs to stand on its own. If your work needs an introduction, summary or explanation prior to someone reading it, that means it's not ready to be submitted. However, if your piece is tight, well-written and expertly crafted, as a reader, I will know what it's about and what you were trying to accomplish by the time I reach the end. 

In addition, the more you explain, the more you may rob your story of its magic. “Another mistake to my eye is when a fiction submitter reports that the story is based on an actual incident, or on someone they've met, etc.,” says Juster. “Usually then, the fictional dream is ruined for me. To those submitters I want to advise, why not simply send it as non-fiction, or keep the facts undisclosed?”

Mistake #2: Making Your Bio Too Long

When it comes to your bio, editors and readers aren't looking for your life story. We just want to get a sense of the person behind the submission. Your bio is a way for us to connect with you before (or after) we read your work. 

Some literary journals have specific word counts they ask for when it comes to bios, as well as other instructions, such as providing the bio in third-person, etc., so always follow those rules first and foremost. However, if the journal you're submitting to doesn't provide guidelines on the bio portion, aim for 3 to 4 sentences max. And be sure that what you share is genuine, not cutesy.

“One of my cover letter pet peeves is when someone doesn't include any relevant information,” says Carve Poetry Editor Ellie Francis Breivogel. “Instead, they just list one or two random facts about themselves in an attempt to seem quirky.”

Mistake #3: Listing Every Single Writing Accomplishment

This is closely related to Mistake #2. If you are lucky enough to have a lot of publication credits, don't list all 20 of them. Choose the top three or four that are the most prestigious and then end the list with "among others" or something to that tune. The same rule applies to awards - choose only the most prestigious. Trust me, you'll still wow us.

Mistake #4: Improperly Addressing Your Cover Letter

There are a lot of ways that addressing your cover letter can go wrong. One of the most egregious things I've seen as a reader, and which I'm shocked I even have to address, is authors who automatically address their cover letter to "Dear Sirs" or "Dear Gentlemen". I could rant about this for hours, but for your sake, I will leave it at this: to assume only men serve as editors and readers at a literary journal is offensive, sexist and tone-deaf.

Another obvious way to rub an editor or a reader wrong is to reference the wrong journal. If you’re submitting to Carve, you better make sure your cover letter doesn’t open with “Dear Tin House.” This is one of the many reasons that sending out submissions en masse using copy and paste isn’t the best idea.

So what should you do? A good rule of thumb is to take five minutes to look at the masthead on the journal's website or inside their print edition, and address your letter to the editor who oversees your particular form (poetry, fiction or nonfiction). If you don’t have time to do this, “Dear Editors” or "Dear Editors and Readers" is generally a good option.

Now for some good news!

There are a lot of you out there writing really wonderful cover letters, too. Personally, I always appreciate the submitters who thank both the editors and the readers (who are often volunteers) for their time and attention. 

“I also like letters that specifically mention Carve and why the writer decided to submit to the magazine,” says Fleming. 

Juster echoes similar thoughts: “I don't really need to be addressed by name, or to know why the writer chose Carve, but it touches me when the reason comes to light, especially if past published stories are cited, or our mission to publish honest fiction is mentioned.”

So, if you haven’t taken a look at your cover letter in a while, now might be a good time to freshen it up. Happy submitting!

Do you have questions about cover letters not answered here? If so, please share them with us in the comments and we'll try to answer them here or work them in to a future blog post.