I worked as a fiction editor for a while, and I’ll tell you a little secret about my time in fiction. Unlike TLR’s fiction editor, Joe Ponepinto, I never read your cover letters.
At least, not until I was on the fence about a story and needed something to push me one way or another, or until it was time press the “accept” button.
Here’s why: I didn’t want to be swayed by the types of awards you won, about the the way you came to me, about which MFA program you graduated from or who you knew. I wanted to story to stand entirely by itself.
Each editor, of course, to his or her own. And, perhaps surprisingly, each genre to its own: When I took the position here at TLR to read nonfiction, I changed courses. I now read every single nonfiction cover letter before I get to your submission, and I read them with relish and anticipation. In large part, it’s because these cover letters typically contain the following:
- A tidbit about the writer
- Some information about the origins of the piece
How is this different from fiction cover letters? It’s not. The difference lies in the weight nonfiction editors place on this information. If you’re writing a piece on mushrooms, for instance, and you have a PhD on mycology, I want to know. Your credentials will enhance the piece, rather than muddying the waters.
Likewise, if you stumbled upon the essay about egrets that you’re sending me while on a kayaking trip in the Everglades, that’s nice to know, too. A little background, in this case, is useful information, and can be powerfully intriguing.
Finally, on a marketing note, this kind of information is fantastic to have in editors’ pockets when we finally go to promote the issue with your essays on mushrooms and egrets in them.
So go on, deck out your cover letters. Tell me what you want me to know. Just don’t send along an impersonal form cover letter to any editor in any genre. Those you should file under “missed opportunity.”