Once, in undergrad, I submitted a story I wrote for my sophomore workshop to n + 1 and got a positive response, an interest in putting the thing in their next online issue if I could only revise it enough. I couldn’t revise it enough, because I was secretly the newest of writers, and anyway, I was busy working a job and an internship while carrying a full-time undergraduate course load and also raising a small child. Eventually, the editor who had expressed an interest stopped being as interested and moved to The New Yorker instead, and I published the thing in the print issue of a far less well-known magazine.
It happens. That story was not my mature work, it was written before I’d had a good long sit-down-and-think about the politics of my art and my person, and I’m sort of (read: very) relieved it doesn’t exist on the internet. So there’s that.
But at AWP this past week, I went up and retold the story to the current n + 1 staffpersons who were representing the magazine at this year’s table, and I even went so far as to admit what my cover letter for the piece was. A single sentence, written with the blithe cluelessness that only total newbs can muster up, and which the current n + 1 folks agreed was “baller”:
Dear n + 1, I’ve attached a story that I think you’ll like.
I wouldn’t recommend this approach, baller or not, but as someone who now does a ton of reading for litmags, I can tell you exactly what’s pleasing about it: the things I didn’t do.
I didn’t drone on, providing random factoids trying to prove I’d read the magazine, instead letting the work prove I’d read the magazine. I didn’t try to explain the story in the cover letter, because I knew instinctively that a story either stands on its own or is unpublishable—and anyway, talking about my work makes my eyes bleed. I didn’t try to claim a false relationship with the readers by pretending to have something in common with them (example: everybody who submits to The Journal and mentions they went to Ohio State for undergrad). I didn’t share the sort of faux-quirky detail about my life that becomes tedious when everybody’s doing it (do not ever use this space to talk about your family, your favorite food, or funny shit you do at work).
What else didn’t I do? I didn’t try to prove I was cool. I didn’t try to fluff up a fake-ish CV by bragging about any of the totally irrelevant following: reviews and essays in journals that only published me because I was on staff, work published in academic journals or news venues, any work in journals with more than a five-percent acceptance rate, work in undergrad journals, etc.
I also didn’t mention my MFA or lack thereof, or any sort of academia at all, because I was embarrassed about still being an undergrad. But it’s possible this actually worked in my favor: I’ve since heard from folks who insist that still being in any sort of college makes a submitter look bad, since “a student by definition can’t yet be a professional.” Your mileage may vary on this last one, which sounds to me exactly like the sort of extremely silly, arbitrary thing some readers would definitely try to enforce. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
This may feel like an impossibly long list of potential faux pas, and it is. You might be thinking to yourself, “But if this is all true, then I have nothing to write!” and that’s fine. Your letter can be very short. Many of us would rather it be very short. Readers plow through a lot of these things, so give them a break.
I find myself subbing to more and more contests these days, and for those the letter does not matter, because it’s invisible in Submittable until after a decision has been made—at least, this is how it’s always been in the contests for which I’ve read, regardless of any conspiracy theories put forth by the people who keep losing those contests.
All this said, I’m happy to give you the template for the form letter I send out with virtually every non-contest sub:
Dear <insert editor name if available on website or if you have corresponded before. Otherwise, just address them by genre, e.g. “Fiction Editor,” and/or write in the name of the magazine>,
For submission of a single piece, same paragraph continued:
I’m writing to submit my <poem/essay/story/short short>, “<insert title here>” (<insert here the number of words of prose rounded up to nearest hundred or number of lines of a poem, excluding any skipped lines with no text in them>).
For submission of a batch of short shorts or poems, same paragraph continued:
I’m writing to submit my <poems/short shorts>: “<insert title here>” (<insert here the number of words of prose rounded up to nearest hundred or number of lines of a poem, excluding any skipped lines with no text in them>), “<insert title here>” (<insert here the number of words of prose rounded up to nearest hundred or number of lines of a poem, excluding any skipped lines with no text in them>), and “<insert title here>” (<insert here the number of words of prose rounded up to nearest hundred or number of lines of a poem, excluding any skipped lines with no text in them>).
For people not in MFAs, same paragraph continued:
I’m a <current profession> from <city where you live>.
For people in MFAs at Iowa/Michener/Zell/Cornell/maybe like Madison/UIUC/Hunter, same paragraph continued:
I’m an MFA at <insert MFA>.
For people in all other MFAs, same paragraph continued:
I live in <city>.
For people with previous publications in exclusive venues, or who have won contests, or who have attended exclusive residencies (please note that “exclusive” means five percent or preferably lower, and “contest winners” does not mean finalists, semi-finalists, honorable mentions, or nominees, because then we’d be here all day), same paragraph continued:
Mention your credits as briefly as possible.
For everybody else:
If accepted, this would be my first publication.
Start new paragraph
<If work has previously received a nice note or higher-tier rejection from the editor, mention it here.> <If you have met the editor, say you enjoyed meeting them and remind them of the venue.> <If you have a secret writing world connect who told you to submit because they know the editor, mention it here.> <If work is a simultaneous submission, say so here.> <If you’re starting to run out of space, start a new paragraph here.> My bio is attached. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
<insert phone number>
Bio: <Your name here> <mention IN THIRD PERSON FOR THE LOVE OF G-D the same information as above regarding city/profession/MFA/previous pubs>.
NB: I get it, you’re very anxious. And with reason! People do get turned down from certain publications on the basis of their cover letters, because cover letters that don’t project the right mix of professionalism and normalcy are unappealing. For those of us who are naturally horrible at things like professionalism and normalcy, simply knowing such criteria exist can be discouraging.
And yet. There are ways to fake it. A deeply impersonal form letter that you can modify depending on how well you know the folks at an individual publication will overcome most hurdles, in the sense that you won’t be giving yourself the chance to sound “wrong” to anybody. So double-check to be positive you mentioned the right name and/or magazine in the header, and then send the fucking thing.
Don’t overthink this. Just do your best and move on.