A Public Service Announcement: Cover Letters

If we could take just a brief moment away from our normally scheduled programming, perhaps we might offer, just once, something of actual use. If you’re a person who writes things, and also a person who submits things, either to Barrelhouse or other literary-type publications, please do not do the following things in your cover letter: 

1. After you mention the school that awarded you a BA, an MS, a PhD, an MFA, a GRE, whatever (and mentioning the school is fine, though not necessary) please do not then provide a laundry list of writers you “studied with” or “worked with,” as if the story you’ve submitted has somehow taken on the characteristics of those writers’ stories by osmosis. 

For one thing, the most obvious thing, the work you’ve submitted will be either good or not good, and the fact Joyce Carol Oates once read the story and said “start it on page 3,” or “show, don’t tell” doesn’t make even a tiny bit of difference (to us, anyway; maybe it made a tremendous amount of difference to the story itself, in which case you should send her some flowers or chocolates).

For another thing, who’s to say we even like the work of the authors you’ve mentioned?

Point is, this particular style of name-dropping isn’t even creative or interesting name-dropping, it’s literally just a dropping of names, random and meaningless. It does not define your work, it doesn’t define you, it doesn’t provide context for whatever you’ve done on the page, unless what you’ve done on the page fails in the ways one might expect the writings of an unimaginative name-dropper to fail.

2. One paragraph. One! Unless you’re a person who likes to write short little journalistic paragraphs, in which case, okay, fine: two.

More than two paragraphs is just padding, or nervous rambling.

Seriously: If you’d done enough fascinating writerly things in your life to merit more than one paragraph, your cover letter would read “Hi, this is John Cheever, I just came back from the dead and wrote this story, and here it is. Feel free to cram it up your cornhole, because it’s already been published in The New Yorker, losers.”

3. Lets say you’ve been published in thirty or forty literary journals. How about you just mention three or four of them? The phrases “such as” and “including” and “among others” are useful here.

Mention only the publications you’re most proud of. For instance: if you’ve had a story in Harper’s, the fact you’ve also had a story in the Valdosta State Thrice-Yearly Literary Compendium and Illustrated Cornucopia is fine, good, we’re proud of you, really, but telling us about it won’t add cache to your credentials. Come on! Harper’s!

And if you’ve had stories in thirty or forty small lit mags, small-small lit mags, the kinds we’ve probably never heard of and will not bother looking up, still: three or four of them will do. Because here we’ll let you in on a little secret, and it might sound mean but we’re just being honest, this is for your own good: seeing that someone has published in thirty or forty small-small magazines none of us has ever heard of triggers pretty much the same response as someone telling us, at a party, that he’s played Double-A baseball for the past thirty years for twenty different teams.

The response isn’t pity, exactly, it wouldn’t be fair to call it pity, because look, we've never been good enough at baseball to win even in Little League, and the minor leagues ain't nothing to sneeze at. But we don't need to know how many teams that ballplayer's shuffled between, if he only said "I play minor league ball" we might think oooh, a prospect, this guy might one day bat cleanup for the Yankees! and then we'd buy him drinks and suck up to him because we are, as you've always expected literary editors to be, shallow and self-serving.

3. All the obvious stuff: no weird fonts, no little monograms or family shields in the corner, we don’t think there’s any way to attach the smell of perfume to an electronic document, but if there is a way to attach the smell of perfume to an electronic document please do not attach the smell of perfume to your electronic document.

4. As Friend of the Barrelhouse and Eyeshot Editor Lee Klein once said, if your email address is something like GeniusWriter232@hotmail.com, or LonelyKittenPoems@gmail.com, you might want to consider getting yourself a new email address.

5. Please do not explain your story. Please do not even describe your story. Words to avoid: coming-of-age, heartbreaking, romp.

6. Please do not say "So-and-So suggested I send you this story" unless that particular So-and-So did, in point of fact, suggest that you send us your story. We know Joyce Carol Oates did not, in point of fact, suggest that you send us your story. We don't even know Joyce Carol Oates! Sure, there was that one night in Jersey City, but no one used real names and we pretended not to recognize her from the book jacket photos. 

Heed our tips, Barrelhousers! We want you to succeed! Because if you succeed, you will one day buy us drinks and let us party on your yacht, right? Right?

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