Covering the Cover Letter

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Q: I’ve written a personal essay for a magazine that invites its readers to submit “meaningful remembrances.” The submission guidelines state that submitted articles are welcome for review. Should I send a query letter or send the essay along with a cover letter? What format should I use?—Carla V. Britt

A: Cover letters generally accompany work already expected by the recipient. Since the magazine welcomes articles for review, an expanded cover letter will work best and be key in getting an editor to look at your essay.

While there are different opinions on how to handle cover letters, one approach is to model the first paragraph to the language on the back of a book cover. It summarizes your work and gives the editor/publisher/agent a crystal-clear picture of your story. In the subsequent paragraphs, include (briefly) your background, especially anything that would make you somewhat of an authority on the subject you’re writing about, and any extremely prestigious credits you may have. While your third-grade Mother’s Day essay may have won you first prize at school, it’s better to leave it off and include only notable published works and writing awards you’ve received from well-known organizations. Stylistically, business-letter format works best.

Many people confuse cover letters with query letters. A query letter is a sales pitch for something that hasn’t yet been contracted. You’re selling an idea for a piece. It can be less formal—more like an outline—and should hit on the major points you plan to cover. Many editors and publishers request that you send a query letter up front, so be sure to double-check the guidelines.

They don’t have the time to eye a manuscript without being briefed on its contents, so they use query letters and cover letters to speed up the process.

Brian A. Klems is the online managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.

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