As I remember it, it was once common to write cover letters for magazine submissions that started out like this:
Please consider my 3,444 word story “The Reinvigoration of Ronaldo” for publication in Fine Literary Journal Produced Either Independently or By the Grace of University Support. In “The Reinvigoration of Ronaldo,” the title character is running late for the most important meeting of his career, until he learns that life has more to offer for those willing to forsake punctuality.
It’s the second sentence I’m most curious about here, the summary of the story being submitted, modeled here after dozens of similar cover letters I’ve received at various magazines (but with all of the details being made up). When I first started submitting to literary magazines, this is exactly what books like the yearly Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market suggested you do (although I have to say that I thankfully never followed their suggestion). I haven’t bought a copy of that book in years, but recently had a chance to look through someone else’s, where I saw that they’ve moved to a cover letter that leaves out the summary, a move I certainly appreciate and that I think is generally agreed on. As an editor, I know the summary almost never endears me to read the story in question, partly because any summary of a short story tends to be incredibly (and negatively) reductive.
My question here isn’t whether or not submitters should leave off the summary–I think they most definitely should–but whether or not the summarizing itself is harmful to the writers who practice it.
I went through the cover emails for the last 200ish submissions I’ve received for my magazine, thinking I would present the first lines here in case your own cover emails have started to bore you. I really just picked anything, unless it seemed identical to a line I’d already copied and pasted in.
Some of them are fairly awkward, so I should say that if I went through my own cover emails from the last couple of years, I would probably cringe so hard that it would basically count as vomiting. I’ve also sent some really weird rejections.
I think I accepted four of these, but from the opening lines, you would never guess which. In fact, I have probably never paid the cover emails this much attention before. I just download the files and keep them all in a folder, then do a Gmail search for the filename when it’s time to respond.
My own standard cover letter is: “Dear [NAME, not “Editor”, unless it’s multiple editors],
I’ve attached a short story for [YOUR MAGAZINE]. It’s about [HOWEVER MANY WORDS], and I hope you like it.
Thanks for reading,