• 3 More Cover Letter Don’ts

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in The Submission Process     Comments 13 comments
    Scout was afraid of bad cover letters, too.

    Scout, hiding from cover letter don’ts under a table.

    Last week we wrote about some cover letter don’ts, including the importance of doing at least a minor amount of research before submitting to a literary magazine. Today we’re offering a quick roundup of a few more no-nos.

    Because again, while you’re unlikely to be rejected based solely on your cover letter, a crappy cover letter leaves a crappy first impression, and you don’t want an editor, upon entering the world of your beautiful writing, to be carrying a crappy first impression.

    Equate your cover letter with the first few seconds of a job interview

    Your resume and bona fides, your verbal eloquence, your brilliant time- and money-saving ideas for the company–all of this can be undone before it’s even done if you show up late, unkempt, with a turkey ‘n’ pesto sandwich on your face and a string of TP stuck to your shoe. Your resume, communication skills, etc.–in our case, your writing, the submission itself–is what gets you hired, but if your first impression (cover letter) sucks, well, you ain’t gettin’ the job.

    Different editors, different strokes, so I won’t call mine universal, but here are a few cover letter peccadillos that you may want to avoid:

    1) Listing all 167 publications your work has appeared in

    (a.k.a. “Your magazine is just another notch on my sliver of a bedpost.”)

    You’re proud of your pub credits, and you ought to be. (Especially if pub credits is your answer to our legitimacy question.) They look wonderful when written out in paragraph form, don’t they, one after another after another after another.

    But here’s the thing: Nobody wants to read a big long list of magazine titles. And nobody will read it if you include it in a cover letter. At best the editor skim it and see if any familiar names pop out. Most likely he/she will skip it entirely, in which case it’s done you no good at all, but instead has just eaten up a bunch of space and possibly given the editor the impression that you’re just pub credit-hungry. Some writers are. And to an editor, it’s not an attractive trait.

    Save your list of pub credits for whoever organizes the family newsletter; in your cover letter, include only a couple of the most impressive (however you care to define that), and/or, better yet, list a handful that are most in line with the kind of work featured in the mag you’re submitting to. And then write “among others.” Even “among dozens of others,” if you still want to boast a bit.

    Having 167 pub credits doesn’t impress an editor; showing an editor that you want him/her to be no. 168 is what impresses an editor.

    2) Asking the editor to acknowledge receipt

    (a.k.a. “I demand personal attention!”)

    I understand the impulse to include, at the end of your cover letter, a simple “Please let me know this was received.” Fight it! Editors at lit mags are among the most overworked and underappreciated folks in the literary workforce. Don’t ask them to do chores. Don’t assign them extra homework. Your submission has been received.

    If you’re truly worried, follow up with the magazine after an appropriate amount of time has passed. Most journals will state the appropriate amount of time in their submission guidelines. Read them!

    3) Writing back the following day with a new draft

    (a.k.a. “I’m a pesty pest.”)

    This, my friends, is probably the most annoying practice I ever come across as an editor. There are two main variations:

    “I noticed a typo on page 5. Attached is a corrected file.”

    Typos happen. And if you miss one before you submit, let it go. No editor, ever ever ever, has said, “I’d love to have accepted this story, but there was a typo on page 5. Better luck next time.” If your piece is picked up, odds are that your typo will be fixed. If your piece is not picked up, your typo is not to blame.

    “I’ve rewritten an important scene. Here’s an updated draft.”

    If a key scene needs a rewrite, don’t submit the story. Writing back with a new draft is basically another way of saying, “I sent in my work before it was ready. And I’ll probably do it again, lol!” Big-time no-no.

    Whether to correct a typo or update a key passage, clogging an editor’s overflowing inbox with an “updated file” is one of the worst ideas you’ve ever had.


    For the tl;dr crowd: Don’t commit these cover letter don’ts:

    • Don’t clog an editor’s inbox.
    • Don’t assign an editor extra homework.
    • Don’t include all 167 publications you’ve written for.
    • Don’t make a crappy first impression.


    Discussion & Further Reading

    Editors: What are some of your cover letter don’ts? And/or tell us about a time a cover letter made you read a submission with a jaundiced eye. Let us know in the comments below.

    Writers: Wondering about any other cover letter don’ts? Shout ‘em out below or drop us an email.

    And if you’re in need of a weekly writing treat, subscribe to our email list, either in your right-hand sidebar or by ticking the “Join” box beneath your comment.

    For some (much more cutting and perhaps NSFW) dos and don’ts, consider reading:

    Thou Shalt Not Piss Off the Editor

    Pour, Pour Writers

    Dear Sirs: A Cover Letter No-No

    And a popular blast from the past, “Worst. Advice. Ever.”

    David DuhrWriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is books editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and contributes regularly to the Dallas Morning News, Publishing Perspectives, the Observer and others.


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    Jerry Schwartz

    David, Your equation of a cover letter to the first few seconds of a job interview is right on the money. I would draw a comparison to what’s called an “elevator pitch”. The scenario is that you find yourself in an elevator with someone you want to give you (or help you get) a job, and you have 30 seconds to make a good impression. Here’s how I would handle it: ===== Fit: Why you admire, and chose to submit your work to, this particular publisher. BRIEF description: “It’s a romance between two sailors, one of whom is lost at… Read more »

    Jerry Schwartz

    Three more things: Resist the temptation to use anything other than white or slightly off-white paper; use heavy (20 or 22 lb. paper); and sign your name with a pen.

    That bit about heavy paper might seem silly, but I’ve found that it gives more weight to what you’ve written. I say this as someone who was a consultant for many years, and that “by the pound” trick has a subtle but noticeable affect.

    Jensen B.

    Haha, I did #3 once and the publications (which I won’t name) editor (which I won’t name) wrote back with somehting like “Get back to us when you’re ready.” I didn’t really think that it would be annoying, but I guess this seals.

    How many on the list of pub credits becomes too many? You say a couple, then a handful. And 167 ios obviously exaggerated. Is 10 too much? Is there an ideal number or is it editor to editor?


    I wonder if submittable has made some of these obsolete? At my mag I used to use Gmail, but with Submittable there’s a lot less risk of tossed-off messages clogging your inbox. I recommend it.

    Martin Barkley

    If you choose to compose a cover letter, do not invoke the names of professors from your MFA program. For the most part, no one cares, it’s annoying, and it comes off as ass-kissy. An obsequious writer is a walking, breathing oxymoron. Avoid that incompatible combination as you don your very best interview kit.


    Both. Let the work do the talking. Name-dropping in a cover letter or a biographical statement just seems like preening to get attention. Likewise, to your point on interviewing skills, business pundits suggest not supplying references, or even offering them “on request.” You need to show that you can stand on your own two legs. Of course you’ll supply the refs if needed, but it’s such a rigged exercise on the side of the job-seeker.


    Smart, direct, and congenial
    brevity is not a sin
    however your pitch should be what you lead with,
    detailing when it’s necessary

    But under all that, you have to reach who will read your material,
    taking in consideration anything
    to hook them with your story
    and that comes from your complete confidence in what you are offering,
    that enthusiasm must be sparkled through out!
    Be bold!
    Don’t hold back.

    Even if you fuck up and puke on your shoes,
    let this be your dream.

    Sheli Keyes

    I think your last two lines sum it up precisely! It is one of the most difficult steps to take, but just doing it is the only way results will happen. Great advice for the cover letter!

    Don’t stand on your tongue,
    Don’t sit on your hands.

    Remember, the spoils
    The Victor commands.

    Make sense of yourself before
    Pushing send
    So that when it is read
    They’ll return and not rend
    All that blood sweat and tears
    That you purposefully wend.

    Gerald Schwartz

    I think your tangue got all toungled up and you can’t see your eye teeth.

    Would love your thoughts, please comment.x