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Demystifying Cover Letters

By Anna Furtado

With your manuscript finally completed, edited and polished, you find yourself in a quandary over how to write a cover letter that will get your work noticed by an editor. Writers of fiction (and nonfiction) can sometimes be intimidated by this task, but if you keep in mind the following suggestions, you’ll have that cover letter written in no time at all.

Some Basics
Before getting into the heart of the cover letter, lets talk about basics. The first thing to realize is that your cover letter is a personal advertisement touting your story and you as an author. It is your application for a job in a professional arena, so your letter must be just that—professional. In spite of that, your cover letter shouldn’t be dull. Rather, it should convey your excitement for your work and your writing ability. A cover letter is not the place, however, to get “cutesy” or to try to be too clever.

The letter should contain all the necessary information, but nothing more. That said, it can still convey your enthusiasm for your work and your passion as an author. A word of caution: if you come across an example of a cover letter in a writer’s magazine or a book that you really like, remember that it should be customized to let an editor get to know you. She or he is interested in you, not in the author who wrote the sample letter.

Keeping in mind the professional context of the letter, it should always be written on 8-1/2 x 11-inch plain white paper (unless you have personal business letterhead). The letter should be single-spaced and consist of three or four paragraphs. Choose an easy-to-read font (Arial or Times New Roman, for instance) in 10 to 12 point size.

Try to keep your letter to one page. No editor up to their earlobes in submissions wants to read a 3-page letter, nor will they. Use wide margins (at least an inch—preferably 1-1/2 inches) because the more white space on the page, the more inviting your letter will be.

Finally, separating the information into sections may help. Like your story, think of your cover letter as consisting of a beginning, middle and end.

The Beginning
The cover letter should begin with your header information:

Your street address
Your city, state and zip code
The date
This should be followed by one or two spaces, then add:
The name of the editor
The name of the publication or press
The street address
The city, state and zip code
Next you should address the editor by name:

Dear Ms. Booker, (of course, you would substitute the correct name here).
In order to address the editor by name, you may have to do some investigation. Presumably, you’ve already researched the press to ensure that they publish books similar to the one you are submitting. If you’ve written a romance novel, it would do little good to submit it to a publisher who only publishes nonfiction works on social justice or environmental issues. During this research, you may have already come across the name of the editor to whom your manuscript should be submitted. If not, you may have to telephone the publisher or search elsewhere online to find the name of the person to whom you should send your work. The publishers' Calls for Submissions usually provide this information.

The Middle
Next, you begin the body of your letter. The information that an editor will want to know can be summarized by what, why and who.

Open with a line that introduces the editor to the title of the book, the book type (genre) and book length.

I am responding to your call for submissions by sending you my manuscript entitled Cinderella and the Princess. This story is a romantic fantasy of 300 pages.


Please consider my enclosed manuscript entitled Cinderella and the Princess for publication. This story is a romantic fantasy of 75,000 words.
In the first paragraph, you’ve told the editor the name of your book, the type of story and the book length. If you use the word count from a word processing program, the count won’t be the same as using the standard formula of number of pages x 250. (To use this formula, a "page" must follow the publisher's guidelines for manuscript preparation—usually, 12-point type, double-spaced, with 1-inch margins.) For this story 300 pages x 250 equals 75,000 words.

Now to the heart of the matter—what the story is about. Authors love words. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be writers! They also love the work that they’ve given weeks, months and possibly years of their lives to write. Distilling that story down to 3 or 4 sentences can seem almost impossible. One way to overcome the difficulty of getting 75,000 words down to 3 or 4 sentences is to devote one sentence each to the beginning, middle and end of the story. (Then if there is something important in any one of those three elements that must be told in two sentences, you still have one in reserve.)

Try these exercises to hone your 3 sentences to hook an editor:

Sit quietly for a few minutes and think about your story. Write down the first three words that come to mind that describe it.

Cinderella and the Princess could be described as:
Next think about the beginning, middle and end of the story. Write a sentence for each—beginning, middle and end—remembering the three words that came to mind when you first thought of the story. Incorporate them into your description if you can.

The story of the unhappy Cinderella starts when we meet her as a disparaged daughter who has been relegated to housemaid. By the middle of the story, Cinderella has been whisked off to the ball after a magical encounter with her fairy godmother, Ralph, where she meets her princess, but then they are separated again. In the surprise ending, the young woman is reunited with her princess charming for a second time where she is recognized as the love of the princess’ life.
Another approach is to pretend that your best friend, who only has a few minutes, wants to “hear all about your book.” What would you tell her?

Cinderella is the story of a young woman whose place in her household is usurped by a domineering stepmother and two self-centered stepsisters. When a grand ball is held in honor of the beautiful princess, Cinderella has no hope of attending—that is until her fairy godmother, Ralph, appears and takes the situation in hand with a magical flair. The story doesn’t end happily-ever-after quite yet, though, because the enchantment doesn’t last and only through a series of surprising events does the princess finally find the love of her life again.
This is the place to let the editor know that you’ve done your homework and to convey the information that will help her or him to understand that your book would fit well with their list of already published books.

I believe that Cinderella and the Princess complements the FairyTale Press books that you have recently published like Jacqueline and the Beanstalk and Damsel and Gretel. I admire these books for their challenge of gender roles in the retelling of fairy tales with sensitivity and humor and I have written Cinderella and the Princess in that same spirit.
When deciding what information to include in this section, remember that you are essentially applying for a job. How are you qualified to write this book? Tell the editor about yourself as it pertains to the project. Don’t make exorbitant claims (“I’m the next Katherine V. Forrest”). These are neither believed nor appreciated. Don’t say that you expect your book to be a bestseller, but do let publishers know if you have reason to believe that there is a paying audience for your book.

This is also where you will include any publishing credits that you may have. If you have none, it is not necessary to call attention to the fact by admitting it. Just leave that information out. It is acceptable to say that this is your first work, though.

You may be tempted to put other information into your letter, especially if you have no writing credits. Remember, only information pertinent to the work you are submitting is in order. In this example, if you have a degree in Fairytaleology from the University of Oz, it would be appropriate to include it. However, having graduated from a culinary institute should not be included unless Cinderella and the Princess contains gourmet recipes for the food served at the ball.

Before completing Cinderella and the Princess, I wrote a similar short story for Tall Tales for Big People and have also been published at I am also a first-place winner of the "Three Sentence Fairy Tale" competition. This is my first full-length novel.
The End
Thank the editor for her time—after all, if she got this far, she’s taken at least a few minutes to read your letter. Add that you look forward to hearing from her regarding your manuscript and that you can be reached by phone and e-mail (and, of course, don’t forget to include that information). End the letter simply with “Sincerely” or some other similar closing, keeping in mind that this is a business letter.

Some Final Points
Spell and grammar check your letter. Have someone else spell and grammar check your letter. Read it out loud—it may sound silly, but it helps.

These days, with printers becoming less and less expensive, most people own a decent-quality printer, but if you don’t, spend the money to have your file printed by a local copy service. Again, it’s all about making your letter easy to read and appealing to the editor who receives it.

If you worry about your submission not getting where it’s supposed to go, enclose a stamped, pre-addressed postcard for confirmation of receipt. NEVER request a post office delivery signature because this will not endear you to an editor or to the editor’s staff. Yours is not the only submission that they will get on any given day. If everyone who submitted to them asked for a signature, they would never get to read the submissions—they’d be too busy signing those little green cards from the post office.

Instead, enclose a postcard, addressed to you, which simply says: FairyTale Press has received Cinderella and the Princess. The editor can drop it in the outgoing mail upon opening your packet, and the editor that you’re trying to impress will appreciate it.

You may also enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope for a reply or return of your manuscript. Some people are of the opinion that you shouldn’t include a provision for the return of your manuscript because that conveys an expectation of rejection. Others advise the return envelope if you don’t want your rejected manuscript thrown in the trash. The ideal situation is an electronic submission—but of course you wouldn’t do that unless acceptance of electronic submissions is specified.

Breaking this topic into sections may help to demystify the cover letter and start you on your way to submitting your manuscript. Once you’ve put each of these elements together, you’ll have a great cover letter that, hopefully, gets your story noticed.
Anna Furtado
Author of The Heart's Desire - Book One of The Briarcrest Chronicles
Web site:
Distributed by: Starcrossed Productions,
The Heart's Desire - Have you found yours?

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