• Dear Sirs: A Cover Letter No-No

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in The Submission Process     Comments 21 comments

    Dear SirsDuring the five or so years I worked at Fringe Magazine I was the only dude on staff. Fringe was created by an immensely talented band of women who were tired of, among other things, the attention heaped on the writings of so many white male writers (particularly the dead ones).

    Fringe’s first theme issue was Feminism.

    So when a literary journal is staffed almost exclusively by women, and is particularly interested in matters related to gender, addressing a submission to “Dear Sirs” is like shooting yourself right in the ol’ onions.

    But that’s what many, many dozens of writers did during my tenure there. I don’t have hard evidence to back up the following assertion, but I’m fairly confident in saying that we accepted 0% of them.

    I don’t want to overstate their importance; rare are the instances when a writer is rejected solely on the basis of his or her cover letter. But! Not rare are the instances when a writer’s cover letter will color the reading he or she receives. If you piss off an editor before that editor even opens your submission, you’re immediately playing from behind.

    It’s a pretty simple lesson, but an important one: Know your masthead.

    Three Traits to Avoid

    The “Dear Sirs” example shows three traits that you must not exhibit if you want your submission to be taken seriously:

    1) Presumption and prejudice. Whether the writer believes it or doesn’t, the message “Dear Sirs” sends is, “I assume that men are in charge of this magazine. Men should be in charge of everything.” Two words in and the writer has already marked himself a poor candidate for publication. (And life.)

    2) A total lack of familiarity with the magazine to which you’re submitting. I’m not going to approach the whole debate about how lots of magazines urge you not to submit unless you’ve read that magazine, and how writers reply by saying that they have neither the time nor the money to read all these journals.

    But you need at least a passing knowledge of the magazine, and you need to know that your story, your poem, your whatever, is appropriate for it. Send your sci-fi to Asimovs’, your mystery to Ellery Queen’s. Don’t send to Work Magazine a piece about the time you were a kid and your dad broke your bicycle. Don’t send your poetry to Fiction Magazine, don’t send your fiction to Poetry Magazine. And don’t send your “Dear Sirs” letter to a magazine run by women. Don’t send your “Dear Madams” letter to a magazine run by men.

    3) You don’t respect, or care enough about, your submission to do the small amount of research required.

    It’s like a thirty-second, four-step process:

    • Surf to a World Wide Web search engine such as Google.com
    • Type in the name of the magazine and the word “masthead”
    • Click the offered link
    • Read that shit


    If you can’t even bother to do that, then you may as well just address your cover letter “Dear Whoever-the-Hell” and call it a day.

    Can’t find a masthead? Then a simple “Dear Editor” is always welcome.

    Negative Attention is … A Negative

    ChoicesAll writers know that getting published is torturous, thankless, often humiliating work. But editors know this as well. And more often than not, they sympathize. This is partly because most editors are writers, too.

    Look, all an editor really wants to learn from a cover letter is whether you respect the publication and whether you respect your own work. So at the very least, do the small amount of homework it takes to illustrate that respect.

    And never (never never never) call negative attention to yourself. Particularly in the salutation.


    Discussion & Further Reading

    Editors: What are some of your cover letter pet peeves? email. 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: Any cover letter-related questions? Shout ’em out below or drop us an email.

    And if you’re in need of a weekly (and tasty!) 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

    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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    Les Izmore

    Why are the dont’s always more fun than the dos? I can’t believe writers do these things. Dear Sirs belongs in the 80s. Unless you’re writing to an NFL team or something.


    The web abounds with NFL potshots. Too easy.


    Remind me not to get stuck next to you on a transatlantic flight.


    (That’s for PJ, not Les. “Les Izmore.” Haha.)

    Dustin Jackson

    Yes, automatic rejection in that situation. And probably many others.

    I guess I don’t mind a “Dear Sir” if it’s specifically addressed to me, but it’s better to use a name. And if you don’t have a name, use something gender-neutral. Nothing’s wrong with “Dear Editor.”

    My biggest peeve as an editor: writers sending a submission on like Tuesday and then writing back on Thursday to ask if I’ve made a decision.


    You all almost lost me with the dead male writer thing; aren’t we all really sick of these online gender debates on the Internet? Hating dead white guys is very 2004. But I read on. Not that this content is new info. Before sending something for publication, know the publication. Isn’t it rule number 1? I’ve been a writer and editor for 35 years and have been preaching that rule for the same amount of time. Good tips for a beginner maybe. Also, spell your name right in your cover letter.


    OK, so I won’t write Dear Sirs in a salute, if editors start responding to submissions in a not absurd amount of time. deal? :)

    I think my questions would be why do editors want cover letters? What if all submissions were anonymous and the writings judged only on their own merits, and not on name recognition or amount of publications on the writers cv. Wouldn’t that lead to better contents.

    Jerry Schwartz

    This a much bigger problem if you’re writing a business letter and you have no idea who will read it. Although

    “Dear sir or madam, as the case may be:”

    could be mildly amusing in a sitcom, there’s really no good way to handle this situation.

    “To whom it may concern:”

    sounds like some kind of legal action is impending. I’ve had to finesse it by leaving the salutation off completely, which makes it pretty abrupt.


    Oddly enough, I don’t usually read the cover letters until after I read the submissions. This is a particular quirk of Submittable, which let you read the submission first, and then click over to read the cover letter if you care to. So I don’t get a lot of “Dear Sirs” in the slush pile, but I DO get quite a number of them in my inbox from unsolicited folks who are unauthorized to be darking my virtual doorstep. That being said, I really fuckin’ hate being addressed “Dear Sir.” Particularly when my email address makes it pretty damn clear… Read more »

    Jerry Schwartz

    I’m sure that it varies from editor to editor. Personally, I’d prefer that they did read the cover letter; but I don’t run the zoo. I can’t really understand the logic of not reading it. If the letter were well composed and to the point, I’d be inclined to invest more time in the submission itself. If the letter were written in Crayola by an obviously self-important blatherskite, I would probably just skim the submission — at most. If I, myself, were writing a cover letter for a submission, it wouldn’t occur to me to put a CV in it.… Read more »

    Jerry Schwartz

    Re: critiquing a submission If I were in your shoes I, too, would be very reluctant to respond to a request for a critique. I’m sure that editors have enough to do; and there are also “editors for hire” that do it for a living. Although they’re more accurately described as “writing coaches”, there is a lot of confusion about the term “editor”. If you think about it, an editor might be the editor of a newspaper; a gatekeeper for a publisher; someone who compiles an author’s work; someone who “curates” an anthology; someone who redacts someone else’s work; or… Read more »

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