Since we’re talking about submitting to magazines, let’s talk cover letters for a moment. As I said the other day, I don’t know that they help all that much, but the can hurt, so while I wouldn’t advise spending too much time trying to get it just right, I also would advise taking enough care to avoid some of the obvious pitfalls.
Many magazines still require or request them, but some do not, so my best first advice is to follow the magazine’s guidelines when submitting. If they don’t want a cover letter, then don’t send one. If they provide a cover letter field in their submission portal, then include a brief cover letter unless they say it is optional, in which case it really is up to you.
Unless the guidelines say otherwise, don’t include the cover letter in the file you submit. People do this all the time, and I try to ignore it, but it’s annoying. Many magazines want to read submissions blind, and even if we don’t, we usually don’t want to read the cover letter with the submission. We may read it first or we may read it last, but we want to see the poems (or fiction, etc.) by themselves. In part, this is because we will take the file of any submission we accept, and we will import that into the file we use to create our magazine. We won’t publish your cover letter, so we don’t want it in that file.
If the guidelines say to put it in the file, then follow those guidelines, of course — everyone has their own way of working, but typically the cover letter is separate.
In an old-fashioned postal submission, a cover letter was always a separate sheet, attached with a paper clip to the submission. It could be easily removed as a record of the submission, which would then be circulated among the editors. I suppose that’s why it’s called a cover letter. It listed the titles submitted, the name of the submitter, and the address. Those are all included in an electronic submission somehow, so cover letters aren’t as important as they once were.
The next best advice I can give is to keep your cover letter reasonably brief: no longer than my longest paragraph above, and that’s probably pushing it. You will not impress anyone with a long cover letter. You will distract them from getting to your poems or story, etc. Make every word count, but keep it short and to the point.
Have you actually read the magazine? If so, then it’s fine to mention something specific about it. But don’t pretend you read it when you haven’t. That becomes painfully obvious. Avoid phrases like “I love your magazine” unless followed by something that shows you know what magazine you’re submitting to. Flattery may not get you anywhere but false flattery gets you nowhere, and fast.
Don’t list every publication you’ve ever had, and don’t try too hard to impress with your publications. I’m of the mind that it can be a good idea to list a few recent publications, but if you sound like you’re bragging, you could turn an editor off. Be modest, but tell about who you are. Often, I don’t list publications at all, but I’ll tell a little about myself and maybe say something about the magazine. However, when reading cover letters, if I see a short list of publications, I don’t mind, and it can get my interest, especially if they are similar to mine.
If you’ve never published or if you only have a few publication credits, don’t feel embarrassed by that fact. It’s fine to mention that this would be your first publication or that you are in high school or college or are fairly new at publishing. Editors like to support new writers, and we also like to publish people who have good credentials. We’re looking for a good mix of seasoned and fresh voices. We often like to know a little bit about where someone is submitting from or what they do for a living. It won’t get your work accepted, but it does make you seem human and may add a little context to what we read, if we read your cover letter first, not last.
That’s really all you have to do. Follow our guidelines and act like a real human being. Don’t try too hard to impress, just be yourself and then let your submission do most of the talking. If we ask for anything specific, be sure to give us that, but otherwise just let us get on to reading your work.
Of course, a cover letter can be too brief. I still remember one of the worst cover letters I ever got. All it said was something like, “I hope you like my poems. If not, you’re an idiot.” I laughed out loud when I read it, but I still didn’t accept those poems. I might have, but they weren’t that great.
On that note, you should probably avoid humor in a cover letter unless you know the editors well enough to know it will work. And don’t be too personal, unless you know the editors very well. Keep it cordial, keep it professional, and keep it brief. Remember that the main thing the editor should care about is your submission.