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Literary Journal Submissions 101

To submit your latest short story, essay, or poem, you’ll need a cover letter—which is much different from a query. Use these tips from inside a creative writing program to help your letter make the grade.

While working toward my Master of Fine Arts at The Ohio State University, I did what many writing students (and professors) do: I joined the staff of the university’s literary journal. Reading and evaluating fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction submitted by writers living across the country and beyond proved to be endlessly fascinating. And because I never let on that back in high school I had been voted “Most Disorganized,” I was eventually given an editorship. When I went on to earn my Ph.D. at the University of Missouri, I made sure to work on that university’s journal, as well.

(Sample Cover Letters for Poetry Submissions)

In fact, a great many literary journals, including some of the nation’s oldest and most revered, are affiliated with university writing programs. Part of the mission of these journals is to give creative writing students a hands-on education in literary publishing. But you don’t need to be a student for your work to appear in one. You just need to make it through the submission process.

I’m happy to report that in my 10 years of working on a number of journals, first as a student and later as faculty, not once did anyone ever utter the word “blockbuster.” Nobody based an editorial decision on whether an essayist’s website was getting millions of hits. No one cared whether or not a short story fit neatly into some red-hot “urban paranormal leprechaun bullfighter” genre. All of which is to say that when it comes to submissions, editors of literary journals are concerned with exactly one thing: finding manuscripts that knock their socks off.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that editors are only human. And fairly or not, a poor cover letter on any submission casts a negative light on the writer before the editor even gets to the manuscript’s first page.

So what should a cover letter entail? From reading thousands of submissions over the past decade, I’ve noticed that certain mistakes repeatedly crop up—and that your letter can stand out simply by avoiding these common errors. 

Literary Journal Submissions 101

Let’s take a look at an (entirely fictitious) example:

Fred Murphy
Fiction Editor
Cool Story Magazine
123 Main Street
Anytown, State, Zip

Dear Sandra,1

Did you know that it takes 28 folds to make the perfect swan?2 You will learn that and more after reading “The Secret of Paper Folding”.3 It is a fictionalized account of a boy named Sammy who meets a mysterious old woman who has never before shared her origami secret. It is a story about the importance of friendship, sad but ultimately redemptive, with a cast of unforgettable characters.4 “The Secret of Paper Folding” is based on the true story of a unique lady I met back when I was a young girl.5 I believe that your readers would appreciate the story’s universal themes as well as the lighthearted spirit in which it is told.6

I was born in Norway but raised in Missouri.7 I have worked as an emergency room technician, safari guide, Model T refurbisher, bounty hunter, hand model, ferry captain, lighthouse keeper, ninja, and tympanist.8

I am an unpublished fiction writer9 but am hopeful that you’ll select this story for the Pirate’s Booty Review.10

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,
Jennifer Smith

Let’s turn our attention to the points numbered throughout in red:

1. Is the editor’s name Fred or Sandra? The writer has probably sent this letter to several journals and hasn’t changed the name in all the necessary places. Also, the salutation should include the editor’s full name, or “Dear Professor Murphy” if the editor is a professor, or “Dear Dr. Murphy” if he is a Ph.D.

2. Unlike a query letter to a literary agent, your cover letter to a journal doesn’t need to (and shouldn’t) try to grab the editor’s attention. Save that for the work itself. Witty? Snappy? Leave it out.

3. I see this error all the time. I think it’s reasonable for an editor to be suspicious of a writer who doesn’t know the rules of punctuation. The period always goes inside the quotation marks. Be vigilant about your grammar, always.

4. This advice might surprise writers who’ve worked hard summarizing their novels in queries to agents and editors—but, again, a cover letter isn’t a query, and the convention with literary journals is not to summarize the work in the cover letter. Let your submission speak for itself.

5. If you’re submitting fiction or poetry, there’s no need to connect the work to your personal experience. For an essay or memoir piece, you can do it briefly if your experience is relevant, but you shouldn’t feel obligated.

6. Of course you believe readers will like it. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be submitting it. Leave this out.

7. Fun fact! But also totally irrelevant.

8. It’s fine to state, briefly, something about yourself—your career, your locale—so that you come across like a flesh-and-blood human being. But I see this jack-of-all-trades thing so frequently that I had to mention it. There’s no need to prove how worldly and interesting you are. Let the work itself reveal your intimate knowledge of the kudu’s mating habits.

9. Because this cover letter doesn’t mention previous publications, I might deduce that the author is unpublished. Still, there’s no reason to highlight this fact.

10. There’s nothing wrong with the sentiment, but what the heck is the Pirate’s Booty Review? (Remember, she’s supposedly submitting to Cool Story Magazine.) Another careless error.

Bearing all this in mind, here’s a revised version:

Fred Murphy
Fiction Editor
Cool Story Magazine
123 Main Street
Anytown, State, Zip

Dear Fred Murphy,

Please find enclosed my short story “The Secret of Paper Folding.”

I live in rural Missouri, where I work as an emergency room technician.

I enjoy reading Cool Story Magazine and am hopeful that you’ll find my story to be a good fit.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,
Jennifer Smith

Simple, polite, even a little boring? That’s perfect.

(12 Literary Journals Your Future Agent is Reading)

A few additional points

If you’re simultaneously submitting the same work to a number of journals, it’s good form to include a statement to that effect.

Check the journal’s website to be sure you’re writing to the current editor. Many journals, especially those staffed with MFA students, change personnel frequently. When in doubt, “Dear Fiction Editor” beats using the wrong name.

If you’re submitting electronically (more and more publications are allowing this), all of these principles still hold. Keep your cover letter e-mail short, sweet, and professional.

All that said, if you’ve been previously published, then go ahead and include where your work has appeared. If you’re in a creative writing program or have won any honors, awards, or fellowships for your writing, you might briefly include that information. Will any of this give you a leg up? Not necessarily. It might buy you an extra minute or two of an editor’s hopeful attention—at first—but ultimately the work will stand or fall on its own merits. Which is exactly how it should be.

Short Story Fundamentals

Whether you are a writing novice looking to cut your teeth or a published professional, the short story is a unique and challenging medium that offers you amazing opportunities. Also, short stories are a great way to gain publishing credentials with less time investment than it takes to develop a novel-length work. The workshop covers structure and the common pitfalls writers experience when crafting a short story.

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