There is a ton of great input on cover letters out there; it’d be hard to go wrong with just about any advice you’d find on a reputable literary blog. My own cover letters are geared toward volume submission practices, and over the course of hundreds of submissions, I’ve distilled a pretty solid formula that’s working well for me.
My own cover letters are always some variation of the format below depending on what the individual guidelines require. I usually keep the guidelines open in a browser window and treat it like a checklist to be sure I’ve gotten everything, as many are particular about things like the subject line of your email, the name of your file, whether or not your name is included in the file or just on the cover, etc.
The First Strong Caveat
Always always ALWAYS go to the journal’s website or previously printed issue and read a few examples of what they’ve accepted for publication, their “About” section, their Masthead if they have one, and without question, read every word of the Submission Guidelines. Three times. This will help you evaluate whether your work fits what they’re looking for, and most importantly, it will inform you if the market requires anything specific in terms of what they expect to see in a submission that crosses their desk (Hint: There are always specifics).
So let’s get started! Feel free to copy and paste. Alternate wording shown in italics, you’ll want to choose one or the other, not both!
Okay stop right there. I use a relevant name if there’s one indicated on the Masthead or About page. In the case of multiple editors, I will pick the Managing Editor, the first Poetry Editor listed, or the Contest Judge depending. If I’m not sure or there is no name listed, I’ve also used just “Editor” on occasion. If a journal is very laid-back or obviously quirky or off-beat, sometimes I will just say “Hello!” or be playful with the greeting, but I’m very sparing with that.
Attached (Included here) please find my submission of _____ [number] poems for consideration in your upcoming “_____” issue (theme): “Poem name 1,” “Poem name 2, and “Poem Name 3.”
“___” could refer to the theme name, seasonal reference, issue number, etc, depending on the circumstances. I like to list the titles of my poem(s)/chapbook within the text of the cover letter. This helps me later on when I’m filling out my submission tracker, so I don’t have to keep flipping through pages to find them again. If you’re not submitting to a theme, you might instead say:
“…consideration for the Poetry Contest Name Here” or “…for publication consideration in Journal Name.”: “Poem name 1,” “Poem name 2, and “Poem Name 3.”
I sometimes (but not always, if it isn’t required or doesn’t otherwise seem necessary), I’ll add a line that affirms I’ve read and understood their requirements:
Per Journal Name’s submission guidelines, none of the poems are simultaneous submissions.
“… all of the poems are previously unpublished” or “‘Poem Name 2’ is a simultaneous submission, and I will notify you immediately if it’s accepted elsewhere.”
Assuming, of course, that the journal in question actually accepts simultaneous submissions! Time for a simple sign-off, in a new paragraph:
Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.
Best (or “Sincerely” or “Regards” or something similar),
Author’s Full Name
[I add contact info below my name if the guidelines request or require it]
The Dreaded Bio!
For the Bio, usually you only need about 50-75 words at most, which doesn’t actually go very far. I used to include humor in mine years ago, but I found I had to keep revising it because not all journals appreciate that, and I didn’t want to have to keep switching it up. This is the stock bio I’ve been using lately, which satisfies the stricter 50-word limit:
Samara is a two-time Pushcart nominee whose work has appeared in Strong Verse, The Whistling Fire, 5×5, and others. She has two children, works in marketing, has recently returned to university to complete her BA in Creative Writing, and is a long-time member of a weekly poetry workshop group.
(You may recognize a version of this one from my About page on this blog. Please note that my nom de plume is my single first name, which I use above. It’s appropriate to include your full name at the beginning of a 3rd person bio.) It’s pretty common to start with 3 or so of your best publishing credits, followed by some combination of literary achievements and relevant credentials, and finish with a couple of items of personal note. But what do you do if you’re just starting out?
If you have never written a bio, or you don’t have much (or anything) on your tear sheet yet, you can start by including anything that makes you interesting — anything that defines you in a way you want to be defined. Of note might be previous or contemporary involvement in any tertiary literary areas such as education/community involvement/service/hobbies if applicable. If you have literally nothing to say here, you can briefly state your intentions to become published, which authors have inspired and influenced your work, how you’re involved in improving your craft, that sort of thing. (If you’re not involved in improving your craft in any way at all yet, I strongly suggest going that route before diving in to submitting for publication!) It’s also appropriate to list a couple of personal items like where you live, your primary life activity (job, parenting, service, retired). Some people list immediate family or pets, etc.
Some people go quirky or funny or stylistic, and all of those styles are perfectly legit as long as it doesn’t go against what the journal itself requests/requires/prefers. It’s always better to show you understand the tone and intention of the market to which you’re submitting by “meeting them where they are,” in terms of professionalism and tone. Reading through issues and excerpts of past published work (and being sure to read those author bios at the bottom!) is a great way to get a strong sense of each journal’s unique voice and preferences.
The Second Strong Caveat
The only thing I would strongly suggest that you stay away from is self-deprecating or overly emotional language in your cover letter or bio. If you’re brand new or otherwise just getting started with submitting your work, it’s entirely appropriate to say something like “I have recently begun submitting work after a career change,” but avoid editorializing or gushing in a tone of voice you might use with a friend on the phone. It’s unnecessary, distracting, unprofessional, and anyway, the feelings that come up at the beginning of a literary journey are very well-known to seasoned editors, who would find such statements as “I’ve never done this before so I am never sure what to write about, and feel embarrassed/eager/etc…” or “My sister/husband/kid is going to be amazed that I submitted poems to you!” to be at best quaint, but at worst tiresome or off-putting. Best to keep it simple and factual, sincere and warm and professional. It establishes that you not only respect the valuable time and attention of the editors to whom you’re submitting, it shows that you believe in yourself enough to be just you, unadorned and confident (even if you’re just faking it at first, and that’s okay, too). ❤