The Art of the Cover Letter

By Kasey Perkins, Assistant Editor

Cover letters. I’ve been thinking a lot about them lately as we’ve really plunged into reading submissions for Natural Bridge. As the envelopes pour in, there has been quite the variety of ways in which people choose to introduce themselves to our editors, from typed to handwritten, from fine linen paper to yellow copy sheets, from tiny leaflets easily lost to a full page of polished prose. And that’s what a cover letter is, really—an introduction. A first impression. As we’re nearing Valentine’s Day, one may even liken this to a first date. To that effect, a lot of writers out there may be wondering what makes a good cover letter.

Well, much like that first date, a cover letter for a submission to a literary journal should really abide by the rule “less is more.” A polished physical presence is certainly important—having nice letter head or fancy resume paper can help you stick out in a crowd—but what really matters is content. We want a brief, honest introduction to you, but we don’t want to hear everything. Save that for our second date. What would a journal need to know? Knowing what poems, stories, or essays are enclosed helps our organizational process, while knowing your university affiliations (if applicable), gives us a sense of where you are as a writer. As far as day jobs are concerned, these are always a great add if they give context on your work—if you’re writing poems about abused animals, knowing you work at a shelter gives us a perspective on your work that is perhaps useful or even necessary.

And while letting us know you’ve been asked to submit is an excellent idea (we’re more inclined towards personal response that way, though not always), letting us know too much can be detrimental to your submission. Much like that first date, a cover letter shouldn’t be filled with emotional blackmail, such as begging for feedback. With the number of submissions we handle, this just isn’t realistic. Similarly, trying too hard to dazzle us with personal information (such as attaching an entire CV), can backfire if your work doesn’t live up to your credentials. Information overload goes double for the work itself—leave a little to the imagination, rather than explaining your work in a cover letter. The person across the dinner table wants to discover you for themselves, not have you explained to them at first meeting.

Basically, a polished, brief, relevant, and polite cover letter can buy you a lot of attention. Why should we slow down before tossing this submission in the slush pile? Why should we give you that second date, or rather, a second read?

And if you don’t include a letter, well—as one of our editors opined last week, “a cover letter shows you are not a barbarian.”