Nine Pieces of Advice on How to Write a Cover Letter (As Demonstrated by How Not to Write a Cover Letter)

by CJ Hauser

Dear Sirs, [1]
My name is CJ and I am writing to introduce myself. I am the next great literary genius. [2] Even my dog thinks so, though he is usually more of a Hemingway guy. [3] I started writing when I was five because, much like Marcel Proust, I was a lonely child and terribly sensitive. [4]
I am submitting to your journal (publishing house/agency) because you publish work that is very much in line with my own. You recently published a story about a young man who feels listless and uninspired and so gets very drunk and then stares at the sea. There is a scene where this very thing happens in my story, so I know you will like it. [5]
My story is also perfect for a movie adaptation. [6] In the movie adaptation, the main character, who is semi-autobiographical, will be played by Jon Bon Jovi. Fans of Jon Bon Jovi will totally love this story, [7] so I can guarantee at least one million readers will buy the issue. Mister Bon Jovi has already agreed to promote the story. [8]
Thank you for considering my work. If I do not hear back from you by eight am tomorrow I will show up at your office, weeping, in a chicken suit, holding a hand-lettered sign that says: WHY DIDN’T YOU CALL ME?!? [9]
CJ Hauser
[1] Always try to address your letter to a particular person. Mention him or her by name. If you assume the reader at a prestigious journal (publishing house/agency) is a man right off the bat with a lead like “Sirs,” any woman picking up that letter is going to chuck it. Most men will too, because in what universe is there still a cabal of gentlemen in seersucker suits sitting around perusing query letters over cigarettes and bourbon? Suddenly that sounds kind of to Brooks Brothers to get myself a lady-suit...
[2] This is not cute or charming. Avoid making grand claims.
[3] Neither is this. Self-deprecation is vital writerly currency, but don’t try it in a cover letter.
[4] Someday editors will ask for the origin story of how you became a writer. So will your adoring public. But right now, sadly, no one cares. I mean, I do. You can tell me all about it someday. But this information will not strengthen your cover letter.
[5] Referencing the preferences of a journal (publishing house/agency), and how your work aligns with those preferences, is a great thing to do, but don’t get so specific about it that they feel like you’re not bringing anything new to the table. Try to identify styles, genres, or voices that they have appreciated in the past as opposed to content.
[6] Delusions of grandeur are healthy and normal. We all have them sometimes. Please do not admit to them in your cover letter, though.
[7] Thinking about the audience for your work is a wonderful thing to do. If you hope your work might have a strong effect on a particular community or readership, definitely mention it. But don’t go crazy.
[8] Do not worry about sales and marketing yet. That is someone else’s job (until someday when the issue (book) comes out when it will become your job too). Right now your job is to write things and then in this letter demonstrate to the reader that you are a competent and charming person of stable character with whom they would enjoy working.
[9] Waiting to hear back is the worst, but know that editors have not forgotten about you. Trust them to get back to you in their own time and do not pester them by “checking to make sure they got it.” They got it. They haven’t responded yet because they are camped out under stacks and stacks of papers and Kindles full of files and they too are weeping, wondering when they will find the story of their dreams. Maybe it is in that stack somewhere. Maybe it is yours. 
This article was originally published at The Review Review.