Cover Letter Tips

So you aren't sure what to put in your cover letter? Here's the good news. Whether you're writing to an agent or a magazine editor, most letters follow this simple three paragraph formula. If you've got the formula down, go to the bottom of this page for 11 Cover Letter Tips.

Paragraph One: Introduction and Summary of Work.

Dear (Name of Specific Agent or Editor):
I would like to submit my manuscript, (Title of Novel), to your agency. (Title of Novel) is a story about (two or three sentences of summary, no more). In ways, it is similar to other books recently published, such as (Book Titles).

Paragraph Two: All About You

(Here's my standard, stock paragraph--see the 11 Tips below.)

Presently I am the Assistant to the Director of Creative Writing at Florida State University, where, next year, I will graduate with a Ph.D. I also hold an MFA (UC Irvine) and an MA (Oregon State). My stories have been published in about 15 journals, the most recent being American Short Fiction, The Literary Review, and The Greensboro Review. This year, I will have stories in The South Dakota Review, The South Carolina Review, Speak, and again in The Literary Review (a novella this time). Earlier this year I won the Charles Angoff Award for Literary Excellence, and in previous years I received an IAP award and a Humanities Grant. I've had non-fiction anthologized in a number of books, including Southern Studies, Australia Literature, the textbook Rethinking How We Teach Creative Writing, and Salon's Guide to Contemporary Authors (Viking/Penguin, 1999).

Paragraph Three: Contact Number, Best Wishes, and Closing

Thank you again for reading my work. Please, feel free to call me at home: (123) 456-7890. I look forward to hearing from you.

11 Cover Letter Tips

Tip One: Wait until your work is absolutely finished before submitting. You rarely get a second chance with a good editor or agent.

Tip Two: Find the right agent or editor. Find novels which are like your manuscript, then find out their agent and editor. How? Simple, call the publishers. Most are very willing to offer this information.

Tip Three: Worried about Paragraph Two, the personal history? Have nothing to say? Be imaginative. Why are you the best person to have written this novel? How has your personal experience prepared you for it?

Tip Four: Still worried? Never published anything? Lie a little. Yes, lie. A cover letter is a persuasive document designed to do one thing: entice an editor or agent to read your manuscript. Say whatever you have to, within reason, to accomplish this. No publication credits? Write the words "West Coast Fiction Review" on a piece of paper, staple it to one of your stories, and boom, you've just been published in West Coast Fiction Review. Is there such a publication? Not that I know of, but it sure sounds impressive. No awards? Ask your best friend--let's say her name is Martha Green--to give you the 1999 Martha Green Award for Outstanding Achievement in Fiction. What's the Martha Green Award worth? Not much, unless it entices an editor or agent to read your work.

Tip Five: Don't take this too far. You can get away with some small lies. It's best not to say you've been published in, say, The New Yorker, if you haven't. Editors and Agents may ask about that.

Tip Six: Never, never, never list the word count. Not even on short stories. It's says, HACK, in bold letters. It is a lie perpetuated by Writer's Digest Books. No one cares about the exact word count. Editors and agents can see that a 300 page manuscript is, well, a 300 page manuscript.

Tip Seven: If you talk about your own life, make sure it is related to your manuscript. No one will care if you're a Tennis Pro and Mother of Three, unless your novel is also about these things.

Tip Eight: Call. That's right, Call. Introduce yourself. Be confident. Let them know your work is coming. It's the surest way to get out of that slush pile and on to a desk. Too afraid to call? Write out what you want to say, call AFTER HOURS, leave a voice message. It's not as good talking to a real person, but hey, it's better than nothing.

Tip Nine: Do not--I repeat--Do not include postage for the return of your whole manuscript. A large, SASE with five bucks of stamps on it says, Shove it back in here right now. Instead, enclose a letter sized stamped envelope suitable for a letter only. This encourages the editor or agent to at least write to you. (But, as always, really good news comes with phone calls! Letters, for the most part, mean bad news.)

Tip Ten: Mention only one or two manuscripts, at most, to any editor or agent. If you say, I've got seven more novels just like this, it tells the editor or agent, Hey, no one's wanted the other seven.

My Last Tip: Send a whole lot of letters out. Cast a big net. Expect rejection. Don't worry when you get it. Keep sending out more letters. If you have a friend who has an agent, ask that person to recommend you to their agent. That's the shortest way to the front of the line. If you don't have such a friend--or let's say that agent nixed you, too--consider attending a Writers Conference which agents and editors will attend. That's another short way to the front of the line. Be persistent. Be prepared to shell out a lot of bucks at the post office. I can think of no one--and, to be honest, I know a LOT of writers--who has found a book contract after only a few months of submitting.