Monday, July 20, 2009

Letter Laws: How NOT to Write a Cover Letter

by Raelene Gorlinsky

In critiquing query letters for a recent online workshop, we noted a number of the same problems in many of them. For any submission cover letter or query letter, there are some simple basics that will keep the editor or agent reading the letter, rather than tossing it into the "send form reject" pile.

~ Only one page long! And do not make it tiny font, narrow margins, or other tricks to fit more words onto the page - slash, slash, slash the number of words you have written.

~ Even if sent as an email, it should be in proper letter format, with date and addressee info at the top, signature line at the bottom.

~ No "clever" formatting or graphics. No, it is not cute or interesting, it is unprofessional and annoying.

~ Get the name and title correct for the person you are addressing! Don't misspell an editor's name, that implies you didn't bother to find out the correct name. You don't know the editor's personal life or marital status, so use Ms., not Mrs. or Miss.

~ Be sure to state both your real name and pen name. It's confusing if one has a query letter from Jane Johnson, but attached chapters marked as from author Polly Patrick.

~ Include a succinct single sentence with story title, length and genre.

~ Learn to write a fantastic, entrancing, single-paragraph blurb.

~ Unless specifically invited to do so, don't submit if the story is not complete. Never say you have a "partial", or that the book will be "done by x date".

~ DO NOT include personal information. Nothing about your life, your family, your hobbies, where you live. What matters is the story.

~ DO include relevant professional writing credentials: previous publications, membership in writing organizations, prestigious contests won (not third place; not contests no one's ever heard of).

~ Your letter should reflect that you've read the publishing house's submission guidelines and followed them exactly. Don't say "sample chapters available on request" or "first page enclosed" when the publisher's guidelines say to include the first three chapters.

~ PROOFREAD! This is probably the most common failing, and the worst possible one. The number of grammar, punctuation and spelling errors in cover letters is appalling. If an editor sees errors in your letter, the editor assumes the manuscript is also full of errors. And likely isn't going to waste time looking at it. Get six - or sixteen - other people to proofread your letter. You want to impress the editor with your letter in order to get her to move on to reading your submission.

Okay, if your letter can accomplish all that, you've got a decent chance that the editor might then look at your actual submission.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In my observation, this is a big source of confusion for aspiring authors. The trouble of it is, there is so much advice out there on this subject and, unfortunately, a lot of it contradicts the rest of it.

For example, the terms 'cover letter' and 'query letter' are often used interchangeably.

Some publishing professionals only want a cover letter which basically consists of 'here's the requested material' while others want the original pitch included to refresh their memories.

I could go on, but I won't.

Most aspiring authors realize they've got one shot and that's it, no questions, no feedback, no room for discussion. If they've had a query rejected because their Heroine's name was Katherine and the agent's hateful step-mother was also named Katherine, well, it's too easy to get mixed up just trying to get it right.