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Gigi Will Know: What should I put in my cover letter when submitting poetry to literary journals?

"What do editors want to see when they read these?"

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I want to submit my poetry to literary journals, but I have no idea what to put in the cover letter. I don’t have a lot of publications to my name, and these letters feel really intimidating as a new writer. What should I say? What do editors want to see when they read these?

—Poet Undercover

Hi, Poet Undercover!

Hey-o! Big props for getting up the cojones to send your work out. That’s a great first step to seeing your work in print. 

Don’t worry so much about the cover letter. I mean, worry about it, only insofar as it’s the first thing everyone sees and that everyone will judge you from it, haha. I’m only partially kidding. Editors do look at cover letters, but most of the editors I know would only judge you on it if you have irrational numbers of typos, if you’ve formatted it in some kind of annoying hipster font, or if you dedicate a hundred words to explaining your poetry and your very boring, same-as-everyone-else’s home life. 

Treat the cover letter like you would any business letter: Standard salutation, then introduce yourself with a line that shows you’re familiar with the journal. Maybe something about how you know of it, or dedicate a line or so (no more than that!) to a poem you’ve previously read in it and liked. Next, give the editor a little information about who you are and list those publications! (No one’s expecting to see a big info-dump here. You might just say that you’ve been writing poetry for a few years and that your work can be found in so-and-so publication; that would be fine.)

Then sign off, respectfully and tastefully. That’s it! (Bonus tip: You’d follow the same format when you go to query your poetry collection, only for querying a collection you would write a paragraph about what the collection, or your work overall, is about.)

OK? OK. Go query. You’ll be awesome. 

Cover letters and quilts,

Gigi