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Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Is there a reason your nose suddenly got bigger?

Teresa Nielsen Hayden excoriates some guy who wrote an article about how to write cover letters to editors. Most of it is pretty amazingly bad advice -- I like the bit about "Don't tell them the word count, they don't care!", when every thing I've ever seen in my life about the mechanics of submission says, "Tell them the word count". But the most amazing piece of "advice" here, as John Scalzi notes, is this bit of hilarity:

"Tip Four: Still worried? Never published anything? Lie a little. Yes, lie. A cover letter is a persuasive document designed to do one thing: entice an editor or agent to read your manuscript. Say whatever you have to, within reason, to accomplish this. No publication credits? Write the words 'West Coast Fiction Review' on a piece of paper, staple it to one of your stories, and boom, you’ve just been published in West Coast Fiction Review. Is there such a publication? Not that I know of, but it sure sounds impressive. No awards? Ask your best friend—let’s say her name is Martha Green—to give you the 1999 Martha Green Award for Outstanding Achievement in Fiction. What’s the Martha Green Award worth? Not much, unless it entices an editor or agent to read your work."

This is just unreal, and I can't for the life of me believe that whichever editor approved the publication of this article didn't immediately start thinking about the writer, "Hmmmmm, wait a minute...."

What gets me throughout the whole article is the idea that you not only have to "entice" the editor to read your manuscript, but that you even can. True, I don't know any real-life editors (being on TNH's blogroll probably doesn't qualify), and I'm as yet unpublished, but everything I've ever read on this subject suggests that you cannot do anything that will get your manuscript read one second faster than before the editor gets around to it (unless your first name is something like "Stephen" and your last name is something like "King, which rules me out on both counts). That's why all the articles and books and whatnot say things like "Do NOT staple your manuscript pages!", "Do NOT use funky fonts! Courier or Times-New-Roman only!", "Do NOT justify the right-hand margin!", "Do NOT use colored paper or cardstock!", and so on. Any trick you might conceive to get your manuscript looked at sooner may just work, but it won't get it read: just looked at, as it is tossed into the recycle bin.

Look at the sample cover letter John Scalzi provides; that's about what I do, and since I have neither publishing credits nor honors to my name, I omit that entire paragraph. What replaces it? Nothing at all: "Here's my manuscript. It is approximately X words long in Y genre [if I'm submitting to a market that publishes more than one genre]. Here's my SASE, toss the MS. Sincerely, Mr. X."

A cover letter is little more than the writing equivalent of the handshake that opens a sales presentation. That's it. If you put more thought into it than this, you're like the wishy-washy businessman who practices his handshake with someone else ("Was it too limp? Do I hold on too long? Is my hand cold and clammy?"). And you'll probably have about the same level of success with the sale.

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