Tuesday morning, I got an e-mail from our soon to be ex-mayor, urging me to vote for him. He opened with "I know I'm not a smooth politician," and that's pretty much when I lost hope for his re-election. Yes, I get that he was trying to go for "my opponent is a slick and sleazy politician," but it flopped. It basically read more like "I know I suck at my chosen profession, but..." But enough about politics. I want to talk about cover letters, and specifically, what your cover letter is supposed to do and why it might not be working.
So here's the truth about cover letters. Editors read them. Not all the time, but often. And they matter. Here's why.
Sometimes, I don't have time to really sit and read submissions thoughtfully, but I'm still interested to see what's coming in, so I scroll through the cover letters to see who's sending us work. A great cover letter can make me stop and open the poems right then. A great cover letter gets you bumped to the top of the queue (you may still get a no, but you'll get it faster).
A great cover letter predisposes me to like you. It does not necessarily mean I'll like your work, but at the very least, it means I'll feel shitty about sending you a decline, and isn't that some small measure of satisfaction right there?
Sometimes, a cover letter puts your work in context. Maybe you've sent us a handful of poems out of a series. At least once, we've declined the poems sent but asked to see others in that series and accepted those.
Sometimes, your cover letter gives us a clue about how we should read your work, what it is that you're trying to achieve. That doesn't hurt.
Sometimes, your cover letter reminds us that we've actually met, and that in the context of our relationship, we should send you a personalized response if we're not going to take the work.
Sometimes, your cover letter makes me take a second look at your work. The truth is, when we sit down to read submissions, we read a lot. At a certain point, we may have read too much. Sometimes, when I've been reading submissions for most of an afternoon, I've stopped thinking, "Do I like this poem?" What I'm thinking instead is, "If I see one more line about a goddamn moth..." and then yours has a moth. A good cover letter can let me know I've read past my limit. A good cover letter can tell me to get the hell out of the house and leave your work till next time. And when I come back to it a week later, your moth will be the first moth I see and in your poem, it will be absolutely lovely.
So, what goes into your cover letter? I could go through the whole "how to write a cover letter" spiel, but it's really just simple flirting. You've picked up a stranger in a bar, right? (And if you haven't, this cover letter thing is the least of your problems.) It's flirting 101. Make yourself look as good as you can, say something flattering, tailor it to the person you're actually talking to, and act confident. Probably the only significant difference is the list of publications. You don't really want to bring up a list of previous work experience in the bar, but in the cover letter, it's a good idea.
Approaches that rarely work in either scenario:
Bragging--She does not want to know how much money you make, and I do not want a list of 47 publications.
Overconfidence--Telling me that I'm going to love these poems is the cover letter equivalent of "your dress will look great on my floor" which is only ever going to work ironically, but that's a really advanced move, and you're probably not going to be able to pull it off.
Talking too much--Please don't tell me when or why you started writing. Please don't tell me every last thing about you. Really. I'm not even at a bar right now. I'm not even drinking.
Self-deprecation*--Again, this is an advanced move. You might think you can pull it off, but you probably can't. This is very much like what our soon to be ex-mayor tried to pull. Would you walk up to a stranger in a bar and say "I know I'm not very attractive and I'm actually pretty lousy in bed, but..."? No, again, this only works ironically. You have to be ridiculously hot to pull this off.
*Please note, sincerity about your level of experience is totally fine: "I've been writing for several years, but only recently started sending my work out." We love this. Sincerity is always good. Insecurity, no.
Assumed rejection**--Why would you mention the possibility that you might be turned down? Why would you even put this in our heads? Trust me, it's already in our heads. We turn down 97% of the work that comes in.
**The really smooth, "loved your last issue, and I'm hoping something in this batch might be a fit for you, but in any case, I'm looking forward to the next issue," is totally okay. Also fine is the joke that lets your good friend the editor know that you'll be cool if they reject you: "If these poems aren't a fit, no worries, but next time we hang out, the drinks will be on you."
Really, it's not that hard, and more importantly, it proves that all those years you spent hanging out in bars were totally not wasted. You were developing valuable life skills, skills that will serve you well in your chosen career, particularly if you're going to be a writer because god knows, you're still going to be surrounded by drunks.