My students often ask me about cover letters when submitting completed works, specifically what not to do. Here, a list compiled from my own limited experience as an editor wading through the submission queue (two years and counting), along with some contributions from a handful of writer friends who also are journal editors. Yes, all of these treasures showed up in submission cover letters.
Things not to say or do in your cover letter when submitting work to a literary journal (or maybe anywhere):
This is not what you normally like to publish….(Then why did you send it?)
I am giving you the opportunity to be the first to publish….(WOW! Really? Actually, at this point, it is the journal that may give you the opportunity.)
I wrote this for a college class…(While it may be great undergraduate work, that line doesn't inspire confidence.)
I hope you will consider publishing this in X… (when you have actually submitted to Y. Proofread, people! Especially when you are using the same template over and over, which is not a bad thing, but could lead to bad things if you are not careful.)
I'm sure you have read my work…(Maybe so. But really, let the editor figure that out. Humble always wins.)
I know this is longer than your guidelines state…(Yep, journals only publish those guidelines for their own amusement.)
Though I haven't read (name of pub) before…. (Maybe you should; just one issue maybe?)
I'm not really a writer… (Why are you here then?)
You published something just like this in the last issue… (Then perhaps we're done with that topic. Or is yours from a unique, fresh, or new angle?)
The enclosed story/essay is about…[followed by several hundred words of description]. (You want an editor to move quickly from the cover letter to the actual piece. And what if he/she doesn't like the cover letter description?)
I began writing as a child…[then 200 words, tracing the path from childhood to the present day]
A professor in my (undergraduate/ graduate / MFA) class assigned us to submit something to a journal…(Even if that's the case, who really thinks such an admission in a cover letter will entice an editor to read the piece, pronto, instead of sighing and complaining about how it's too easy to submit these days, dammit? And trust me, the submission queue will, on its own, reveal this backstory. How many submissions do you think would otherwise arrive the same week from two dozen writers in the same town?)
I could revise it if it's not what you want …(Let editors decide if they want to request a revision. But also: that line suggests you are not confident it's your best work.)
We met at X conference….[Okay, but be specific, and only if it's relevant, for example: We shared a cab from the airport, and chatted about Irish dancing, the subject of this piece of work. We were seated next to each other at the X conference luncheon and you suggested I send this along (but only if he/she DID suggest that; not if you chatted about the weather). If you did discuss rain, a better strategy might be to let the editor ponder why your name is so familiar, and assume she's seen it on some good work published elsewhere!].
You probably won't have the courage / won't understand the importance of / won't want to step outside your comfort zone to publish this ….(Insulting an editor's intelligence, commitment, or integrity? Not a great opening gambit.)
You can read my bio and find links to my work at (URL for website or blog)…(No one has time for that.)
I am an "award-winning writer"… (Always a suspicious phrase. Which award? If it's not named, the assumption will be that it's from an exceedingly small contest, possibly a meaningless award. Better to write, "One of my essays/stories/poems won the X award..." Then again, most editors really don't care.)
I have been published in….(Editors really don't care)
I have an MFA from….(Editors really don't care)
…though you can, and probably should, include the three above items in the writer bio. Mine goes underneath my signature; some writers include theirs in the body of the cover letter (which I find a bit awkward, as the cover letter is a direct address, and the bio should be in third person).
So what should you say?
Dear Editor Name (it's not that hard to find it),
Please consider "Title Here" (123 words) for future publication in (name of journal, plus theme or special call, if applicable). This is a work of (specify fiction or nonfiction, if necessary).
I am a big admirer of your journal (only if it's true!), and especially enjoyed your recent X (be specific).
Perhaps you recall (any relevant, specific, personal contact).
This is a simultaneous submission (if it is). A writer bio follows, below.
Thanks for your time and attention to my work.
(Writer bio here, in third person. Keep it brief. And humble. And relevant. Editing your high school newspaper doesn't matter, unless you are still in high school.)
Good luck, submitting writers (and that includes me. Forever, I hope).