Friday, July 27, 2007


Just did the naughtiest thing yesterday. Well, naughty in a writerly context.

I, who haven’t published a single piece of creative writing, save in youth anthologies and the Bryn Mawr lit mag and in the Philly Inquirer (once), submitted something to the Yale Review, as if I had a chance.

The funny thing is this: I only sent one short poem as if I were super confident that it would get in. And my cover letter was one sentence long. It had the name and address of the publication and the date at the top, and then it read:

“Attn: Yale Review Editorial Office / Here is a poem titled [name] that I am submitting to Vol. 95, Iss. 4 of the Yale Review, accompanied by a self-addressed stamped envelope. / Sincerely, Anna Mendoza” [followed by my contact information]

As if I didn’t need to give any info on my background. As if my name said it all, as if I were Louise Glück or Derek Walcott.

Not that I think I stand a chance, but—if you’re going to do something as outrageous as submit to the Yale Review when you’re a silly little college student, you might as well do it with dignity—that is, don’t stuff the packet with your entire portfolio, and don’t stuff the cover letter with your life history. So when you get rejected, at least you presented yourself with professionalism and class… and an implied playful smirk.

Just wanted to ask the site visitors in general: How long are your cover letters and what do you say? How much do you submit at a time? And what kind of image do you go for?


Phoebe said...

My cover letters are generally extremely short--usually they read as follows:

[editor's name]:

I would like to submit the poems [poem title one], [poem title two] and [poem title three] for consideration for an upcoming issue of [name of magazine]. Thank you for your time.

Sincerely yours,
Phoebe North

I usually only give biographical information if they request it, and then only a sentence or two ("I graduated from William Paterson University in 2006, where I studied writing under the guidance of Timothy Liu" or something like that). I try to seem professional, and let my poems speak for themselves. Generally I submit three per publication, but then, I generally submit pieces of my entire current portfolio to a whole bunch of different pubs at once. Not that I've had any luck lately--ironically, I had a lot more publishing success when I was in college than I have since I graduated--but generally, that's my method. It's the one the aforementioned Tim Liu teaches in his classes, and I've always felt like the Spartan cover letter is the way to go.

Seth Abramson said...

Writing this from work (how sad is that)...! As a poetry editor (and this might just be me), I like to see five poems if possible, and I actually do find cover letters with a short biography the most interesting--while the work always has to stand on its own, a brief bio humanizes the writer and thereby (perhaps self-consciously) makes the editor (or, at a larger journal like The Yale Review, the first-line reader) pay just a little more attention. I think the key is to only include information that's relevant to you as a writer (e.g., educational background, publications, fellowships, prizes, et. al.), and if you don't have any such information to provide, go with a bare-bones approach (that is, don't load the letter up with text to make up for the fact that there's not much you can/want to say regarding your literary bio and/or background).

So--I do think bios are helpful to emphasize that there's a poet behind the poem, i.e. a living and unique intelligence which produced the Art being offered for consideration. Other editors may feel differently, but as I've always been interesting in the human side of writing, I find it harder to develop an attachment to what I'm reading when it feels anonymous. I've used the approach suggested above in my own cover letters and had some success with it (i.e., I can't say whether the letters helped or not, but the way things have worked out, they couldn't have hurt too much)...

Odd that you mention Timothy Liu; we published him in the inaugural issue of The New Hampshire Review, but I can't remember his cover letter(!) I seem to recall that he did provide a bio, however, not that I wouldn't have recognized the name in any case.


Seth Abramson said...

P.S. That should read "only semi-consciously", and "interested" (not "interesting")...sorry, it's late...

L. said...

I haven't submitted much of my fiction, but so far have the shittiest luck: editors just don't write back. One publication not only did not bother to send me a rejection letter, but used my e-mail address to send spam urging me to purchase the editor's new book repeatedly (I've asked them to take me off their list but I get "no respect.")

I also tried submitting to this online journal that's supposedly well regarded, and again " no respect.'

So my three-paragraph cover letters have generally been wasted efforts. And maybe from now on I'll use your one-line approach, Anna.

Vince said...

Most publications have submission guidelines. I'm with Phoebe on short and sweet; unless, the sumbission guidelines of a specific publication require a short bio or personal statement.

Seth Abramson said...

I've only come across a handful (or less) of journals that request a personal statement of any kind; however, in my experience most journals do suggest, or at least welcome, a short bio. And I can say that of the hundreds of submissions I've read--at least in poetry--most had short bios worked into a brief (e.g. two or three very short paragraphs) cover letter.

Phoebe said...


I think that Tim Liu is pretty conscious that he's teaching (mostly) to undergraduate students with few publication credits--I think that without the advice to go plain, a lot of inexperienced students naturally lean the other way, towards over explaining in order to cover up what they might feel to be inadequacies. Since I've had some (very) modest publishing success, I have added the names of those journals. And, of course, if I were in TL's shoes and had six books published, I think I'd mention those too!

Bolivia Red said...

As a reader of the slush pile, I and many others in the office don't even look at the cover letter until after we've read the work. I'm the opposite of Seth, in that I don't want to be dazzled by some big name publications because that sets my expectations higher--too high usually--or makes me read less critically because the writer must be good. Conversely, when they tell me they're accountants or museum workers "taking at stab at writing," I don't take their work seriously and don't read as far as I might to see if the story or poem redeems itself.

I also apprecitate the shorter letters that give Poebe's basic "Here are my three poems for consideration" and a brief bio. The longer letters and the ones that try to be clever are usually indicative of substandard work.

True story (or, What not to do):
Someone actually sent in copies of rejection letters from other journals with his cover letter. I assume his intention was to show that the editor at Ploughshares had written a "nice try but not for us" note, but my reaction was, if they don't want it, neither do we.

Seth Abramson said...


Funny story about the Ploughshares rejection. I do think every editor is different; some may worry about developing a bias from a "dazzling" (or whatever word should be used here) cover letter, others may find the possible cognitive dissonance between letter and poem easier to bear/accommodate. Ironically, what BR says about a possible editorial stance toward prize/publication-heavy cover letters suggests that, from the perspective of the submitter, such letters might be preferable to the alternative. A coy statement, I know, but if the topic's human psychology, I suppose it's not unreasonable to at least understand the context within which decisions are made and biases are exerted.

Phoebe, you're dead on. Less is more, if one's not in a position to cite some recent publications. The bottom line, of course, is this: a good editor will recognize a good poem however it's presented. I think it's all just a question of putting editors in the best possible frame of mind to do their job. For me, it's a humanizing but not chatty cover letter; for others, as BR says, perhaps not. Obviously folks (editors and submitters) are most likely to continue doing whatever has been working for them, however illusory the causal connection between means and ends.


Seth Abramson said...

P.S. BR, I should clarify that it's not at all that I "want to be dazzled" by a cover letter; I hope you didn't take that from anything I said, as I don't think I said that. It's that I'm a positivist, both as an attorney and a poet: I know, and can't ignore, that poets make poems, poems do not simply spontaneously burst on-scene as from a spore. If I can't imagine a name behind a poem, if I can't envision the poem having an author, it's harder for me to engage the poem. That doesn't mean the more publications in the cover letter the more I'm engaged, it really just means to obverse--that cover letters which are nothing more than a name and a single sentence leave me cold, and make me feel as though the poet put little thought into the submission, as by displaying that he/she isn't trying to establish a connection between themselves and the person they're writing to, however minimal. Or perhaps it's that, having worked in a particular wing of the professional world where professional courtesy is considered substantively (not merely procedurally) important, I find it hard to receive professional correspondence written in something other than a professional fashion (even my incarcerated clients feel compelled to write letters which are something other than formless). If my view on positivism seems odd, consider this: would you be more, or less, interested in poetry if poems were written by machines--but with exceeding (i.e., equivalent to human) skill?


Noah said...

first of all, it totally depends on the submission guidelines. this seems like a no-brainer, but one woman in my writing group is constantly getting rejected by doing things like submitting poetry to a fiction journal, etc. read the guidelines. that's what they're there for.

Anna - don't feel dumb for submitting to the Yale Review. if you think the work is good enough to publish, why wouldn't the YR editors take a good look at it. you never know! but, don't sent it out only to them. i typically send a story to 10-15 journals at a time... as long as the journals allow simultaneous submissions (which most do - again, read the guidelines). I'm sending fiction, so i only ever send one story to a single journal at a time. when it gets rejected, i send the next one.

as far as cover letters, i always inclued the obligitory, "Hello, I am submitting my story..." sentence. then i always include a very breif bio: one sentence on where i went to school (CMU's undergrad creative writing program), one sentence on previous or upcoming publications, and one sentence on where i live. honestly, i don't think most editors give a crap about cover letters (unless they're really bad). they probably don't even look at them unless they're interested in the work. if they do like the poem/story, then they have your bio and don't have to go through the trouble of requesting one from you.

Anna said...

I guess that what people are saying is that it's OK to write more than just one line stating the title of the submission and what volume/issue it's for. That is, 2-3 sentences on where a writer lives and their past publications can't possibly offend. And, come to think of it, this does make sense.

Seth, you bring up a point about wanting to know at least a little about who the submitter is--that a short (I assume 2-3 sentence) bio would help to "humanize" him or her and make the submission friendlier/more personal. Now that you've said it I've gotten a new perspective; however, my one-sentence approach arose from the fact that many journals are so impersonal that they don't even said you a formal rejection of your work (i.e. they ignore your submission completely), or they send you a 1-sentence rejection as cold as a 1-sentence author cover letter. Of course journals can do what they like, but then, so can authors who decide that "if the only thing it comes down to in the end is whether the piece is well received--" and some editors here have mentioned that they don't read cover letters unless they've approaved the piece--"then best to let the piece stand on its own." I really have no publications to boost my image, so to rabble on about some small lit mag that I got into at 17 and my experiences as an English major can only be detrimental.

Admittedly, what you said about how an editor would react to my 1-sentence cover-letter approach has worried me. My writing a 1-sentence cover letter arises out of the reasons discussed above, not out of a lack of thought in my submission or a nature resembling a cold, hard, businesslike poetry-writing machine--though my cover letters are admittedly "Spartan" I certainly put a lot of thought and human emotion into my poetry.

And though I also agree that editors need to feel a human connection with the author of a poem, I'm not so sure that the connection has to arise out of the cover letter. Shouldn't poets aim to make it arise out of the poem itself (whether or not the material in it is fictional or autobiographical)? Are readers going to have the benefit of having the cover letter published alongside the poem? When I sent that one-liner letter to the Yale Review, I wasn't being stiff as much as insecure; I felt that my lack of credentials required me to waste as little of their time as possible and require from them only the minute it took to read the poem. Furthermore, when you're as much of a nobody as I am, the only defense you have against impersonal rejections is to conduct yourself with equal aloofness.

M. Ramirez Talusan said...

i think every editor has their biases... the short and sweet method is safe. i usually glance at cover letters just to see if i should give something a chance based on whether the person has been published in places i like. as an asst. editor at epoch, there are a number of cover letters i've seen that i really like, that generally makes the author sound like a nice person. it's not something i can quantify... it's usually an additional line or comment that's funny or sweet but doesn't try too hard.

Seth Abramson said...

Hey there; so you know, I wouldn't sweat it if I were you--my comments about exceedingly short cover letters were more philosophical in nature, as in, no editor's going to be personally offended by a particular bare-bones cover letter, it just may or may not be what they prefer. Certainly I don't mean to suggest you've hurt your chances at The Yale Review (and for what it's worth, I've submitted there a dozen times and never received anything but a blank form rejection, so you shouldn't take the way they treat submissions as any sort of reflection upon your cover letter). Hopefully you'll have better luck than I've had(!)


Miles Newbold Clark said...

I've read slush for McSweeney's, Zoetrope and Opium.

Do not worry about the cover letter unless you have the credentials to back it up - and credentials, unless you're submitting to A Public Space or one of the smaller venues, are almost never merely educational. Focus instead on writing very, very good first pages.

I sent a cover letter to The Paris Review once saying that I had at one time been, statistically speaking, the worst college football player in America. This was true. According to a friend of Plimpton's I used to know, Plimpton read this letter and had one of his minions send me the "nicer" of their two rejection cards. So sometimes strange information can be effective but is only so when you address the editor's tastes directly. And now George Plimpton is dead so I wouldn't try mentioning football there. Maybe if you wrote something about Africa and Dave Eggers you'll have more luck.

If you write to McSweeney's talk about carpentry.

If you write to Opium talk about video games.

If you write to Zoetrope it probably won't matter, but mentioning the Silver Jews is as good a bet as any.

But should you write a cover letter, do not try to be clever. Ever.

Miles Newbold Clark said...

So you are fine, Anna.

Bolivia Red said...

Apologies. I didn't mean to imply that your approach to reading the cover letters is anything less than ethical and appropriate. Sloppy wording on my part.

I meant only that I, as a card-carrying member of the cult of personality, recognise that I can be influenced by such info and so avoid reading the author's bio so I can read with some semblance of fairness. You're right, though, that including "dazzling" info might just get a piece by the first reader on the author's merits and not the quality of writing; but if it's not quality writing, it's probably not going to go much further.

After I read a piece, I do want to know that there is a human being who created it, not a machine. However, I think many people do not understand the cover letter form and their attempts to go beyond the basic bio by putting in some "interesting info to get noticed or stand out" end up being clever or cutesy and miss the mark.

You are not a nobody, you are a writer with few publications. There's a difference.

Seth Abramson said...

Thanks for the clarification, and I'm glad you made that point to Anna--good poetry will out, it has nothing to do with one's publication history. Best wishes to all,

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sorry i have no cover letter with me..
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