Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What's your idea of an effective cover letter? (02/15/11)



Featured writer: Claudia Larson



Contributors this month:
Catherine Crawford
Claudia Larson
Don Edgers
Marilyn Petty
Pat Pomerleau Chávez
Sara Baker
Susan Bono


Cover Up

by Claudia Larson

Bermuda grass ground cover is effective. It grows quickly, sending continuous rootlets and stems anywhere its beady, greedy little Bermuda grass eyes see bare and not-so-bare ground. It not only covers a lawn area, it insinuates itself amongst the hollyhocks and tomato plants.

A crocheted-lace head cover is, by contrast, much more contained. It has a specific purpose. Each stitch builds on the last, creating a pattern that results in knowing its place. Even if beads or crystals or colorful threads are added to simple stitchery, the resulting piece is still expressive in its containment.

A cover letter that's less Bermuda grass and more crocheted lace will be more eye-catching and patience-tending. Too many words, in this case, will wrap around the reader's eye sockets and induce sleep. Choose a few words, just enough to create a simple pattern introducing yourself, your work, including enough humanity (probably avoid the tear-stained paper) to offer a connection with the reader. Remember the cover letter's purpose as an introduction, not ground cover.

Claudia Larson battles Bermuda grass in her Sebastopol, CA garden.

That Coal of Fire

  by Catherine Crawford

There's so much advice available about cover (or query) letters it makes my head spin. The standard advice sounds like a mantra: keep it short, pitch work favorably but realistically, show understanding of a publication's readership, adhere to submission guidelines, be selective about the attention you call to yourself. But cover letters can be a bugbear for me because they're also marketing documents. That we writers have egos is no secret, but ego off-leash can oversell itself and completely ruin a cover letter.

When reading examples of ineffective cover letters, in Writer's Market, for example, I can hardly believe publishers see stuff like that. But they must. They've got better things to do than lie to us. Because tone is so revealing, I'm something of a fanatic about it, whether in speech or writing. Tone is the master key to my cover letters. It tells a reader a lot about me. It's also a litmus test for my commitment to the writing. When I read my draft of a cover letter, I know based on tone whether I'm interested enough in a topic to dig in or am just bamboozling myself.

My cover letters observe standard advice first. But beyond that, they're about projecting hope within reason. An objective tone is a big danger signal for me. It means I'm climbing into my mind where I don't have to take risks. I want my cover letters to show enthusiasm married to discipline. To express excitement without sounding like my hair's on fire. Editors I've encountered are very tone sensitive. Obsequiousness, hyperbole, the overblown approach have never worked for me.

In the past two years, I've published travel pieces on Petroglyphs, botanical gardening, air museums, coastal resorts, the cheese making business, and other subjects. Re-reading the letters that got me these jobs (along with a free press trip), I see how important tone was to launching my ideas. I had a coal of fire burning in me for each of these adventures, and I let that show. But it wasn't a bonfire of vanity, or at least I tried not to fall into that. Ultimately, my letters were less about ego and more about the writing's potential.

Catherine Crawford is a writer and editor who has found her true place in the Pacific Northwest. She loves exploring the Columbia River Gorge and discovering new recipes for sweet potatoes and yams. She suspects that in a former life she might have been a yam.
Reach her at greenwriter1960@gmail.com.



Cover Up

  by Claudia Larson

Bermuda grass ground cover is effective. It grows quickly, sending continuous rootlets and stems anywhere its beady, greedy little Bermuda grass eyes see bare and not-so-bare ground. It not only covers a lawn area, it insinuates itself amongst the hollyhocks and tomato plants.

A crocheted-lace head cover is, by contrast, much more contained. It has a specific purpose. Each stitch builds on the last, creating a pattern that results in knowing its place. Even if beads or crystals or colorful threads are added to simple stitchery, the resulting piece is still expressive in its containment.

A cover letter that's less Bermuda grass and more crocheted lace will be more eye-catching and patience-tending. Too many words, in this case, will wrap around the reader's eye sockets and induce sleep. Choose a few words, just enough to create a simple pattern introducing yourself, your work, including enough humanity (probably avoid the tear-stained paper) to offer a connection with the reader. Remember the cover letter's purpose as an introduction, not ground cover.

Claudia Larson battles Bermuda grass in her Sebastopol, CA garden.

Goin’ Fishin’

  by Don Edgers

I look at a cover letter as "bait" to tempt or catch a publisher, or a "big fish," within a sparsely stocked pond. The bait has to be very special among the plethora of other baits being proffered.

You might try out your lure on smaller trophies like newsletters, magazines, e-publishers, newspapers. After catching some of the smaller ones, prepare to cast your choicest bait into the big-fish pond.

My idea of effective cover letters are the final results: articles, columns, pamphlets and books published with my byline.

Don fishes out of Port Orchard, WA.
His publishing catches can be viewed at
www.anislandintime.com or
www.amazon.com.


Uncovered

  by Marilyn Petty

I do not write cover letters. I have no finished manuscript to cover with a letter. I have a sizeable stack of personal essays that appeared in a monthly newsletter for many years, but unless I assemble them in book form, I will not need a cover letter, should I wish to submit them for publication. And, if I self-publish why would I need a formal request to do so?

You may think me a slacker for not striving after fame and fortune as a published author and you may be right. However, at my age I am unwilling to devote the hours and effort to preparing and sending out my work. I am content to practice the craft of writing and eschew public recognition, should there be any.

Many books on writing have how-to chapters on submitting, for instance, your 1,224 page novel — that is, after you have sent a query letter asking if such and so publisher might even be interested in reading your book. Ted Kooser and Steve Cox in Writing Brave and Free will give you a complete run down on how to compose queries and cover letters. And while waiting for replies, they advise, keep on writing.
And, in the immortal words of Forrest Gump, "That is all I have to say about that."

Marilyn Petty spends too much writing time hobnobbing with friends, when she should be home writing cover letters.

Catching a Z

  by Pat Pomerleau Chávez

I said I thought the letter Z was probably the most effective cover letter. But it's a hard choice, with all the possibilities. And it isn't clear from the question what exactly you are attempting to cover. i assume it is you -- your own self. The letter I would be good cover if you are kind of rigid. Y is excellent if you are the exuberant type. Obviously, O and Q are useless for almost anyone. I've had a lot of arthritis lately; certainly Z is the most effective cover letter for me...

YOU are absolutely NUTS, she said.

Yes, but i gave up trying to cover that!

Pat Pomerleau Chávez keeps things covered in Santa Rosa, CA.

Talisman?

  by Sara Baker

If the submission process is a hypnotic enchantress full of mystery, fascination, and seductive uncertainty, then the cover letter is a magically persuasive talisman imbued with ingenious power and protective energy that we writers believe insulates us from rejection--either real or imagined. However, can a compelling cover letter transform a creative writer into a published writer?

In reality, perspective tells me that a terrific cover letter never sold a bad manuscript nor did an ineffective cover letter cause exceptional writing to be rejected. Nevertheless, submissions that lack cover letters seem like an impolite visitor who enters someone else's house without knocking. The cover letter's alleged magical powers, subsequently, lie in understanding that it is an expression of courtesy as one enters an editor's house.

Editors are busy people who receive numerous submissions a day. So, make their job easier; they'll be more likely to read your work-—increasing your chances of publication. Hence, approach your writing, the submission process, and your cover letter with an air of respectful professionalism.

Professionalism is best evidenced in your ground work. So, prior to preparing your cover letter, read the publication and make sure your manuscript is a good fit. Because every journal or magazine is different, read and follow the publication's submission guidelines. Note word count, formatting instructions, specific genres published, specific reading periods, etc.

Then make sure your cover letter identifies how your manuscript meets the publication's needs, the editor's needs, and the submission guidelines. Your attention to these details translates into transparent competency—-further insuring your manuscript will be read.

Keep in mind that your cover letter is your first impression; so be certain it is professional-looking, convincing yet brief. One or two single-spaced paragraphs free of spelling and grammar errors are sufficient. Type, don't handwrite, your letter using standard, white 8 ½ x 11 inch paper.

Utilize a standard business letter format that includes a header with your mailing address, email address, and phone number, so an editor can contact you quickly if interested in your work. Then, type the magazine's address at the left margin.

Address your cover letter to a real person. "Dear Editor" is lifeless, impersonal, and discourteous and is also indicative of either your unwillingness or your inability to research the publication—-thereby significantly diminishing the chances that your manuscript will be read.

As you type the body of your letter, avoid a long list of accomplishments hoping to impress the editor, for they imply insecurity. Being concise and succinct does not necessarily mean, however, that your cover letter lacks personality and becomes mechanical and monotonous. Your cover letter acts as your introduction and should honestly depict you and your writing style so your manuscript can speak for itself.

So, in reality, a cover letter is not the powerfully perceived lucky charm. Rather, it is an incredible tool. Best to remember, that as a freelance writer, you may be working from home in your comfortable pajamas, but don't let on by creating less than professional cover letters.

Sara Baker is a freelance writer, technical writer, editor, and retired teacher who currently lives in Allen,Texas, with her soul mate with whom she has been married 27 years. She can be contacted at sab_1529@yahoo.com.


Keeping It Simple

  by Susan Bono

Just imagine you're an editor sitting in a faintly uncomfortable chair encountering a writer's work for the first time. For weeks you've been reading hundreds of contest entries and your inbox is stuffed with submissions for other departments in your magazine. You're not an agent or publisher who requires seductive query letters to look further. As an editor, your job is to consider all appropriate submissions to your publication. You're going to turn the page or scroll down or open the attachment unless the cover letter screams, "THIS MANUSCRIPT IS THE WORK OF A COMPLETE IDIOT!" Which doesn't happen as often as writers fear.

It's really quite simple, you think. You just want to know what you've been sent (essay, short story, book review, etc.), what it's called (title), how big it is (word count), and who it's from (contact info). A short, unpretentious bio is an appropriate addition (if it or anything else was requested in the guidelines, then it's a must). But really, that's about it. The rest is icing, which can add a pleasant flavor to this simple communication, especially if it isn't laid on too thick.

The most pleasing toppings are compliments or intelligent observations about your work or your publication. Does the writer know you from a conference or through a mutual friend? How sweet of them to remind you! This effort to acknowledge your connection, if not forced, will make future communication easier for both of you.

But if the writer doesn't know much about you, that's okay, too. A courteous thanks for your time is all that's needed before you turn your attention to the writing itself. If this piece of literature is a good fit for your publication, you'll be able to determine that pretty easily. Unless, of course, the writer has decided to help you out by interpreting her work for you! This is probably the only unforgivable mistake a writer can make in a cover letter. After being told you're reading a "genuinely hilarious look at adolescence" or a "poignant, heartfelt story," all you can think is "OH YEAH?"

Susan Bono is trying to keep it simple in Petaluma, CA.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

C. Larson, B. Povich, M. Petty, C. Crawford, T. Sanders

Columnists Emeriti: Christine Falcone, David S. Johnson, Betty Rodgers, Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Betty Winslow


Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer living in Petaluma, CA. She has published Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. She conducts creative writing classes in Petaluma and Santa Rosa and co-hosts the quarterly Speakeasy Literary Saloon at the Aqus Café in Petaluma. She's on the boards of Petaluma Readers Theatre and the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She is still writing a postcard a day. Her most recent publishing credits include Petaluma Readers Theatre, KRCB’s Mouthful, Milk and Ink, and Passager Magazine.

Marilyn Petty is a dyed-in-the wool Midwesterner, a long-ago émigré to California and a fortunate resident of Sonoma County, CA. She taught weaving through the SRJC for 8 years and was the reporter, essayist, editor and publisher of the Redwood Empire Handweavers and Spinners Guild for 10 years. When not tangling with yarns, she is unknotting words, writing poetry and personal essays. She putters in the garden when words fail her.

Catherine Crawford is a former technical writer, editor, and course materials developer for high tech industries. She has taught college English at the four-year degree level, published two award winning chapbooks of poetry, and written articles for 52perfectdays.com, a Portland, Oregon online travel magazine. She works as an editor in Vancouver, Washington. Her email: greenwriter1960@gmail.com

Claudia Larson, in her childhood, wrote long letters to her best-friend cousin and enthralled herself by writing a heart-rending story of two orphans. She writes fewer letters nowadays and prefers writing poetry and memoirs of her North Dakotan farm girl days. She is not yet an orphan, has six siblings and lives in Sebastopol, CA.

Becky Povich lives near St. Louis, Missouri. Although not young in "people years," she's only been writing for ten of those. Getting her first book completed, a memoir, is her current short-term goal. She can be reached at Writergal53@aol.com, or visit her blog at www.beckypovich.blogspot.com.

Theresa Sanders lives in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, where she is completing a novel. A former award-winning technical writer and consultant, she managed a Documentation and Training department before turning to her first love, creative writing. Her stories appear regularly in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Theresa welcomes email and would love to hear from you. Contact her at: TheresaLSanders@charter.net

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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