Notes on Cover Letters

When Joe and I first began to kick around ideas for the journal that would become Tahoma Literary Review, a concept we found ourselves returning to again and again was that of transparency. We wanted to foster an ethical, clear, and cooperative model of interaction with our contributors, from making our income statements public to giving detailed notes on our editorial preferences in our submissions guidelines. Lately, I’ve also been asking writers what they wish they knew about what goes on in the editorial side of the submissions process, and not a few people have asked about cover letters: what do editors get out of them, anyway? Do writers really need to provide them? In the interest of answering those questions, I’m devoting a little space to what I as an editor look for, care about, and want to see in a writer’s cover letter.

We can skim over the obvious benefits to cover letters: if we’re going to publish you, we need an address (so we can mail you that check, of course!) and a bio to print in our back matter. But there are some other ways that the information you provide to editors can help your work make its way into print:

Providing Biographical Info Encourages a Diverse Range of Voices in Print

Publishing a diverse range of voices is important to us, and when writers self-identify in their cover letter or biographical statement, those disclosures help us to do a better job in balancing, for example, the ratio of male and female writers, emerging and established writers, writers from the US and abroad, writers inside and outside academia, younger and older writers, or gay and straight writers in any individual issue. Diversity, for this editor, is about more than declaring an individual issue of a journal “the lesbian poets issue,” for instance; diversity is about selecting a representative range of the best poems from the overall literary landscape every time we publish an issue. An author’s providing biographical information in the cover letter helps me to do just that.

Cover Letters Help Editors Know Whether We Can Work With a Writer

Editors do more than simply pick pieces to print. We, surprisingly enough, make editorial suggestions and corrections from time to time! However, some writers don’t take well to the idea of being edited. I’ve received cover letters that instruct me that I must publish all of the enclosed poems or none at all, that the writer will not consider amending or editing the poems in any way, and that (in a personal favorite) if I do not care for the enclosed poems, I must not be a very intelligent individual. None of the preceding comments speak to a willingness to work together for a common goal of publishing the best possible poem. When I see antagonism in a cover letter, I know I’m not interested in working with its author. However, when I find that a close-but-not-quite poem is attached to a professional, polite, and appropriate cover letter, I’m much more inclined to reach out to its author to suggest edits and, eventually, offer publication.

Cover Letters Help Us Know How You Heard About the Journal

Did you read a copy of the journal and enjoy a particular piece? Did a former contributor recommend that you send work? Did you hear about the publication on Twitter? Did you find the publication on the shelf at your local indie bookstore? Knowing how you came to learn about a literary publication is incredibly helpful for editors; not only do we get a warm and fuzzy feeling from learning that someone read and enjoyed a piece we published, we also learn how better to tailor and target our promotional efforts based upon the feedback that submitters provide. You do editors a favor when you let us know how we came across your writerly radar.

Publication Credits Aren’t All They’re Cracked Up to Be

It’s interesting to me to learn where writers have published before, especially if they’ve had work in journals that I admire. I don’t, however, use prior publications as a criterion for publishing work. In fact, I rather enjoy being the first editor to offer a new writer publication, so I encourage fledgling writers to be forthright about the fact that they are just starting out. The only way to turn me off in terms of your publication history is to list a huge swath of credits; a small handful of recent, representative publications is fine, but listing paragraphs worth of information is gratuitous at best.

Avoid Going Overboard with Background Detail

Suppress that impulse to explain your work to me in extreme detail. It’s okay to let me know that your piece is excerpted from a crown of sonnets, say, or that it’s part of a book-length examination of comic book superheroes, or that it’s part of a longer narrative work that follows a set of characters throughout. Those might be helpful bits of context for me. It’s not a great idea, however, to detail for my benefit your entire aesthetic theory, your writing process, or the inspirations behind each piece. If your work is ready for publication, then your work speaks for itself.