Query And Cover Letters 101: The Fundamentals

We know that many of you are writers with lots of experience. You already know all the ins and outs of how to write and how to make submissions. This article isn’t for you. You can take this time to go grab a cup of coffee and reread your favorite book.

Are they gone? Good. This article is for new, fledgling writers—the ones fresh out of the egg. Writers who have their very first story, essay, poems, or book ready for submission to literary agents or editors. The writers who may have questions they can’t ask anyone else: Do I use a query letter or a cover letter? What’s the difference? And how do you write one, anyway?

We’ll tell you.

A cover letter... A cover letter accompanies a short work (poetry, a short story, an essay) that you’re sending to a literary journal. It’s a letter of introduction, not a summary. A cover letter assumes that the receiving editor is planning to read the manuscripts attached. So a cover letter doesn’t need to include a synopsis of your works. Actually, most editors will be insulted or annoyed if you do include a blurb, because they’ll take it as an assumption that they can’t properly read the work themselves— and you don’t want to cause any friction!

Whereas a query letter... A query letter accompanies a book’s submission material. Unlike a cover letter, a query letter does not assume that the agent who receives it will read your work. He or she might just as easily toss it onto the “no” pile! So the main goal of a query letter is to convince the agent to read your manuscript. That means your query letter has to include a summary of your story: one that’s interesting, enticing, nothing short of spectacular, and above all, encourages the literary agent to learn more about your book.

Now some similarities between cover letters and query letters... Though the content is different, query letters and cover letters generally follow the same format. Here are some guidelines for both:

  • Length: THE LETTER SHOULD NOT EXCEED ONE PAGE. We’ll repeat that: It should not exceed one page. Yes, we all like to think our work is an exception, but this is one rule that simply has no allowances. You should use one-inch margins and a legible font— no larger than 12-point, but not too small either.
  • Bio: Your query or cover letter should include your education or degree, any reputable publishing credits, and interesting writing-related facts, such as well-known authors you’ve worked with. You may want to list your occupation, especially if it’s relevant to the work you’re submitting. You can also include a few personal facts, like hobbies. Just don’t get carried away on this last point.
  • Letterhead: For submissions sent by mail, using a letterhead will make your work appear more professional. It’s also an opportunity to grab some attention. You want your name to stand out, so feel free to pick a fun font so long as it doesn’t exceed 18-point and is generally legible. And include contact information: Address, phone number, and email.

What does all of this come down to? Your query letter or cover letter should intrigue the reader. Keep it as short and sweet as possible—don’t ramble on. Your letter should also be gracious, thanking the editor/agent for his or her consideration.

Sometimes cover and query letters are simply put aside as the reader focuses on the work itself…but if an editor or agent lingers on your letter, don’t you want it to be perfect? Following the guidelines mentioned here will definitely tip the odds in your favor.

Good luck! And tell the veteran writers they can come back in.

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