Canadian literary magazine PRISM international aims to publish the best contemporary fiction, creative non-fiction, translation, drama, and poetry from around the world. While its pages have featured such luminaries as Margaret Atwood, Jorge Luis Borges, Raymond Carver and Seamus Heaney, most of the work it publishes is unsolicited, and many writers whose first publication appeared in PRISM international have gone on to critical acclaim. PRISM’s Prose Editor Christopher Evans explains how your cover letter can play a role in you being published or not.
Writers often ask if a good cover letter can improve a piece’s chances of getting published, and the short answer is: sort of. Of the thousands of submissions PRISM receives in a year, a minuscule percentage – well under one percent – arrive flawlessly executed and ready to be published without any editorial effort on our end. A slightly larger percent of work submitted is very close, and needs only a few small edits to lift it to exceptional. There’s another ten to fifteen percent at the other end of the spectrum that never make it past our first readers – work that doesn’t even come close to our guidelines, is riddled with typos or unintentional tense shifts, or is basically porn. This leaves a substantial volume of submissions in the middle, and this is where a cover letter can help or hinder a piece’s chance of being given a second, third, or fourth read-through.
When I think back to the first few cover letters I sent to accompany my own work, I cringe. They were, without fail, overly long, painfully earnest, and needlessly deferential. I hadn’t yet been published and I really wanted the editors to like me and my writing. In crafting those letters, I failed to recognize two things which are now much easier to see from the other side of the desk. Firstly, the writer/magazine relationship is not one-way. Just as much as the writer need a venue for their work, the magazine needs good work in order to function; writers do not need to apologize for submitting their work. And, secondly, the focus is on the writing, not the writer. In almost all instances, at PRISM anyway, the cover letter is the last thing we read, and is only read if the writing has potential.
The best cover letters PRISM receives have lots in common with each other. They are friendly and respectful. If they give compliments, the compliments are specific to something or someone that has appeared in our magazine. They may offer a glimpse of the writer’s personality or style. And, above all else, the best cover letters are brief and concise. These types of cover letters often encourage us to give a piece another read.
However, much more common than a cover letter positively affecting a piece’s reception is the opposite: an obnoxious letter can hurt a piece’s chance of being read again. Because we receive so many more submissions than we are able to publish, out of necessity we have to look for reasons to move pieces from the to-be-considered pile to the not-gonna-happen pile. And, sometimes, an unpleasant cover letter can be the tipping point. Here’s an idea of what to avoid:
- If you have an anaconda-length list of publication credits, that’s great, but we don’t need to know about all of them. Just list a handful that you are proud of. PRISM is pleased to have been the first place to publish many outstanding writers and, just as we wouldn’t turn you away for not having published before, we also won’t publish you just because you have.
- Same goes for awards; if you have many, just mention the most notable ones.
- Name-dropping never works. PRISM will not publish you because of who you know.
- Please do not tell us what your work achieves or how your story is a clever metaphor for a mother’s love. If you absolutely have to, you may offer a line of explanation. After that, we get to decide whether you’ve been successful or not. And, generally, if your piece need to be explained to be understood or enjoyed, it’s not a great sign.
- Don’t tell us how you’re the greatest undiscovered writer of your generation or insult us for previously rejecting a piece. Yes, this really happens.
It’s important to remember that the cover letter is really just a means of conveying some basic info about yourself to the editors. So just be polite, professional, and succinct, and put the majority of your efforts into impressing us with the quality of your writing.
PRISM accepts submissions year-round and runs three contests each year: Entries for its next short fiction contest close on in January. Christopher Evans is a fiction writer and the Prose Editor at PRISM international. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisPDEvans.