This was one of the handouts from Rick Kempa's "The Art of Getting Published" session at the WyoPoets spring workshop in April. He has graciously permitted Writing Wyoming to share it with you. You may also find his post on market research in our blog archives.
If you bring your full attention to bear on the specifics of the submission process, you will increase your odds tremendously and -- if you make such a professional approach habitual -- you will assure yourself of eventual success.
Editors are like microwaves and cell phones: no two operate the same way. They have all kinds of needs and preferences and downright quirks. It is your job to keep track of what they are. A close reading of the publication's website, and especially the Submissions Guidelines, should cue you in on how to format your work, what to name the file, what file types (.rtf, .doc, .docx) to use and avoid, what should and shouldn't go into the cover letter, what method of transmission is required (submission service, email or U.S. mail). And so on. Painstakingly observe these particulars, in both the cover letter and manuscript, and you will spare the editors some pain -- which is a good first goal to have.
First, a few words on the manuscript: make it clean and error-free. Unless instructed otherwise, put your name, address, email, and phone number at the top of the first page of each separate poem or story, and a simple header (last name and page number) for every subsequent page. Single-space poetry, double-space prose. Keep it simple -- no fancy fonts, embroidered borders, or perfume.
The manuscript is what matters most of all, of course. The world's best cover letter can't -- or shouldn't -- get lousy work in print. Still, a well-made letter serves a purpose: it establishes you as a serious, savvy writer (not a novice), and it puts the editor in a receptive mood. I favor the three-paragraph approach: introduce your work, introduce yourself and make a connection.
Introduce your work
"Dear Marco Polo," I begin, or whatever the editor's name is (I make a point of finding out). "Enclosed are four poems [or "two short prose pieces" or whatever] for your consideration," and I name them, putting each title in quotation marks. Sometimes I add a second sentence that characterizes the work: "As you will see, they all grapple with the disabilities that the Alzheimer's victim suffers, and the interactions between that person and her caregivers." Or, "All of them, as you will see, explore the surreal ground of childhood." Sometimes I don't.
The second paragraph is the place to give the editor a sense of who you are. If you have prior publications, say so: "Other work of mine has recently appeared in Oxbow Soup, The Praying Mantis Review, and the anthology Yours Truly, published by Peccadillo Press." or: "Several of my memoirs have been published in regional newspapers."
If you don't yet have publications, that's all right. It's your manuscript that matters most, not your reputation, and most editors take pleasure in finding "new voices." Instead, show the editor, in an honest, earnest way, that you live a life of words. Mention your placement in regional contests, your writing group, attendance at regional conferences, enrollment in writing classes. Or say something simple and endearing like: "I am a lifelong reader, who in recent years began pursuing the writer's craft in earnest." Don't overdo it; three sentences is enough.
Make a connection
Editors like to know that you are not mass-mailing your submissions, that you have taken a personal interest in their journal, that you are a member of their readership as well as a would-be contributor. The third and final paragraph is the place to make this connection. Examples: "I cam upon your journal through New Pages, and have enjoyed reading the work from your first volume." "I picked up the current issue of Image at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver a couple of weeks ago, and have been relishing it ever since."
Avoid false compliments ("I absolutely adore your journal!"), over-familiarity ("I googled you and found out that..."), brashness("My work is a PERFECT FIT for your journal!"), and plaintive pleas ("My ailing mother's last wish is to see her son in print.") Be genuine, or be quiet.
That's it. Make a quick exit: "Thank you for your consideration. Sincerely, John Hancock."
By the way, these guidelines -- with some variations -- are the same whether you are mailing out your work in that good old-fashioned way or submitting it online, which is the new norm. For electronic submissions, the cover letter goes either in the body of the email or in the "comments box" that the submission service (Submittable, Submishmash, etc.) provides. When you copy-and-paste, check to see if the formatting has changed. Italics tend to vanish. Also, most of the time, editors what your manuscript -- the two stories, the four poems -- to be condensed into a single file, which can make for some maddening reformatting. But it's time well-spent. The manuscript must look good!
When you press send, or when you lick the stamp, take a minute to congratulate yourself. It is no small thing to seek an audience. And now that you have the hang of it, submit to somewhere else.