The Almighty Cover/Query Letter

Saturday, August 04, 2007
Hi everyone! I thought I would do something different for this week's blog and talk about the all-important cover/query letter. I received some helpful information on this subject from Writer's Relief's (www.wrelief.com) newsletter last week.

One thing I would add to their awesome advice is to stress how important it is to master the skill of writing such letters. Some editors/agents/publishers will judge whether they want to see the work you're offering just by your cover letter. The letter depicts your writing style and how you'll write the article or story you describe. If you polish your words and make them shine brighter than all the other hundreds of letters in the pile, you'll be sure to have more letters in return asking for your work.

The other thing to remember is to be cautious how you word things to different publications. For example you wouldn't query a magazine, such as Funny Times, the same way you'd query one, such as Angels On Earth. The key is learning all about the magazine/agency/publisher and fine-tune your writing according to what they want to represent.

Sounds easy, right? Not really. But practice makes perfect.

I hope you find this information useful.

Happy writing!
Chynna
www.lilywolfwords.ca

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COVER/QUERY LETTERS

The recipe for creating the perfect cover/query letter is simple: give editors and agents what they want, no more and no less. That's it. Basically, you need to prepare a letter that provides what the editor/agent requires and then "gets out of the way" so your writing (as illustrated by your work) stands on its own. Since 1994, we have helped many clients fine-tune their cover letters with great success.

Your letter must follow industry guidelines. It must be only one page, and it must contain editor/agent contact information. It may or may not contain a biographical paragraph if your writing credentials warrant such, and you must thank the editor/agent for his/her time. You may also include some interesting personal information that will grab the attention of the editor/agent such as: "I live in a 200-year-old registered historic landmark on the edge of a forest."

For Short Prose and Poetry: A cover letter accompanies short prose and poetry. It includes the title of the work in addition to some biographical information. Along with the cover letter, you will include a master of your work, (which should be professionally prepared within industry standards), and your SASE ($.41 for response only; the sample pages will be recycled).

Query/cover letter that accompanies a book submission: In addition to the information contained in a standard cover letter, the query letter contains a "blurb" about the book. A short paragraph covering the basic premise of the novel or nonfiction work will draw the agent in and will encourage him/her to move on to the short synopsis or outline. (When we refer to query letters here, we are not referring to query letters used to "pitch" ideas for articles or books. These query/cover letters accompany sample pages of a book submission.)

CHECKLIST FOR CREATING COVER/QUERY LETTERS
Biographical information: A cover/query letter should include, if warranted, your education (college degrees), publishing credits (no vanity presses such as poetry.com), and any interesting facts (such as well-known authors you’ve worked with). You may share a short sentence or two of personal information. What makes you tick? Do you play jazz piano on the weekends? This personal information will make you more real in the mind of an editor or agent. Just don't get too cutesy or talk about your grandchildren for two paragraphs!

Length: Your letter should NEVER be longer than one page, with one-inch left and right margins (top and bottom margins may be adjusted if more room is needed).
Contact Information: You must include your name, address, phone number, and e-mail. Having your own letterhead designed to your liking is a plus.

Show appreciation: You need to thank the editor/agent for taking his/her time to read your submission.

Short and sweet: Prepare a cover/query letter that provides what the editor/agent requires and then "gets out of the way" so your writing stands on its own.

Reference your SASE: All submissions should contain your self-addressed, stamped envelope. Say you've included it when you thank the editor/agent for her/his time.

Appearance: Use high-quality bond paper (at least 24-lb. weight) and an easy-to-read font, no larger than 12-point in the body of the letter, and no larger than 18-point for letterhead/contact information. Be certain your cover/query letter is presentable—no bent corners, smudges, etc. (The first impression an editor/agent has of your work is your cover/query letter.)

SAVVY SALUTATIONS

The first and most important part of the cover letter (besides accurate contact information) is the salutation, but with so many names available, this gets tricky. When we say tricky, we’re referring to gender-neutral names. Unless you have a personal acquaintance with the editor/agent, you cannot know if the name is male or female. Many clients over the years have insisted on Writer’s Relief using salutations such as Dear Mr. So-and-So or Attention Ms. Whoever. Addressing editors and agents using Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. used to be the norm. This is no longer true.

In order to avoid embarrassment and alienating an editor (and NOT getting a good read), follow what has now become industry standard rules for addressing these decision makers. Simply use the first and last name of the editor/agent to whom you are sending your submission. This technique was used for mass mailings but has now become standard business protocol. Using both names for your submissions won’t be held against you. On the contrary, the editor/agent will know you’re not an amateur. For example, if the editor of a publication you are submitting to is named Alex Young, don’t begin your letter with Dear Mr. Alex Young because when she opens up the envelope, she’s likely to feel at least a little annoyed.

In the US gender-neutral names are becoming trendier each year. Before 1960 these names were almost nonexistent. Since then, more and more parents have turned to names such as Dakota, Drew, and Zane. Also, when dealing with names from cultures other than your own—don’t assume. Be cautious and tread lightly because you don’t want an editor turned off by your lack of knowledge. This silly mistake could lead to you missing the opportunity of publication or at least a good first impression.

If you feel uncomfortable about names in general, you can always begin your letter with "Dear Editor." Using a personal name is still considered the best option, so choose Dear Editor rarely. Here is a partial list of some of the names that we’ve run across over the years. Can you tell whether you should choose Mr. or Ms. when addressing your submission? Remember that the wrong assumption may cost you that good first impression.

2 comments:

Angela said...

Great post Chynna :-)

I think you're so right with the Mr. or Mrs. thing. I often battle with this myself, even when sending an email to someone for the first time. My dilema is not really getting the right/wrong sex, but more like, should I really be that formal? I guess it depends... and first impressions are so important that it's hard to figure out which way to go.

For instance, I've had several queries where they address me as "Ms. Angela Mackintosh" - and when I write them back, the first thing I say is "Call me Angela." Sometimes generation and culture has a lot to do with it too. But by following your rules here, I don't think they can go wrong. ;-)

Unknown said...

I really struggled, with my first hardback in 1969, trying to get the attention of an agent--any agent--to handle it. For two long years I'd constructed every type of query letter I could think up. Nothing but slammed door after slammed door in my face. Then, I finally said to myself, "Aw, nuts, the hell with convention."
I fired off a 10-page outline directly to an N.Y. publisher. Within two weeks a contract came flying back at me with a covering letter notation that I needn't have written an outline, the publisher was familiar with my work.

That launched a career that lead to 55 business books with l,l00,000 total sales over the rest of my career.

--Jack Payne
www.sixhrs.com

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