Diary of a Slush Reader: Cover Letters

ENTRY #2: FIRST THINGS FIRST: COVER LETTERS

As a writer, I used to find the cover letter somewhat intimidating. After all, it was (at least ostensibly) the journal’s first taste of my writing, and its introduction to me professionally. I toiled over what I ought to include, how much detail I should go into. I worried, the way I do when meeting a new person, about making a bad impression. As a slush reader, I’ve learned that the cover letter is not as important as I thought it was when I first started out. In fact, it’s quite possible that the cover letter has become less important as the publishing world has begun to rely more and more on electronic submissions, but I’m just speculating there.That said, it’s always a good idea to include a cover letter. It makes you look professional and serious about your submission.

There’s no right or wrong way to write a cover letter, and I’ve never heard of a story getting rejected (or accepted) just because of its cover letter. However, the human brain is extremely susceptible to prejudice, even when we try our best to be neutral and fair. In that vein, there are certain pieces of information that can be useful to you, especially in getting the sometimes cranky, fatigued slush reader to sit up and pay attention:

  • Always read submission guidelines for details on what information each journal you’re submitting to requires. Every journal I’ve ever looked up includes these on their website. This may mean that you have to reformat your submission for different journals, but that is better than looking like you didn’t bother to check out the journal before submitting to it.
  • Always include your name/contact info, title of story, and word count (esp. for paper submissions), and whether the story is a simultaneous submission.
  • Always mention any requests you’ve received from the journal for revisions or more work, along with pertinent details (title of story they liked or general date of the request). When a journal asks for more work, they mean it, and readers remember stories and writers they’ve liked in the past – even if they haven’t accepted them yet.
  • Be judicious with publication lists; it’s not necessary to list every publication your work has appeared in. It’s much better to pick three or four which you think will make the best impression:
    • Journals whose writing best exemplifies your work/aesthetic
    • Journals who are particularly prestigious
    • Journals whose writing closely aligns with the aesthetic of the journal you’re submitting to
    • [Editor’s note: if you’ve not yet published anywhere, don’t be afraid to let us know. We love being a writer’s first publication!]
  • Make sure that when you address your submission to a specific editor, the name you use is current. A lot of journals are attached to schools and their staffs graduate regularly, so it’s important to check their mastheads online before using this trick.
  • It’s not necessary to include a summary of your story or its meaning; the reader will figure that out on her own (if you’ve done your job).
  • Don’t try to sell yourself or your story as though they’re commodities. Journals are businesses, but they’re not built on salesmanship – they’re built on craftsmanship. Upselling your story or, worse, accusing readers who don’t accept your work of bad taste (it happens more than you might think!) is not only rude; it’s not fooling anybody. Let your work speak for itself, and remember that there are lots of journals out there who may love your work, even if it’s not right for everybody.

The formatting of your submission is another simple way to make sure that reading your work is easy on your reader. Slush readers are often reading for long periods of time, and often on small screens, so our eyes get tired quickly – usually long before we’re ready to stop reading submissions. The formatting of a story really matters here:

  • Generic, readable fonts aren’t exciting, but they’re easy to see. Fancy fonts are nice, but they do nothing to sway your reader, and if they’re hard to see they may work against you. And since your work, if published, will be in whatever font the journal uses as its standard, the font you send it in doesn’t matter anyway, except as far as it’s readable.
  • Generic, readable size (12 pt. is almost always a good choice)
  • Double-spacing is, and I can’t stress this enough, absolutely fundamental for prose submissions. Long blocks of single-spaced work on a Word (or whatever) document are really hard to keep track of when you’re reading it for a long time, and the eyes can really get achy after a while. And if the eyes are getting crossed, the prose they’re trying to read suffers.
  • Don’t mess with the format (margins, indenting of lines, etc.) of your prose unless absolutely necessary (read: the meaning of the work as a whole depends on said funky formatting). Leave it to the journal to format it when they accept your work.
  • Again, it’s important to check each journal’s submission guidelines before submitting. Because different journals have different processes for reading and judging work, they ask different things of the writers who submit to them.

Work that doesn’t follow guidelines doesn’t (at least in my experience – I can’t speak for all journals everywhere) get automatically rejected, but the mood of the reader can unfortunately make her feel more or less friendly to your work (it sucks, but that’s psychology, folks), no matter how hard she may try to stay objective and fair.

All cover letter and formatting questions aside, the most important thing any writer can do for her story – no matter what journal she’s submitting to – is ensure that she’s submitting the best possible work she can. Journals accept – or reject – submissions based on the merit of the story itself, and that alone. So no matter what, making sure that the work you submit is as good as it can be should be you biggest priority.


Rachel Wright is a PhD student in Creative Writing at Georgia State University. She has also studied at University College Dublin. Her work has appeared in The Stinging Fly and she was a semi-finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in 2009.

Photo by Brendan DeBrincat

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