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Cover And Query Letters: Striking The Right Tone In Your Writing

Cover And Query Letters: Striking The Right Tone In Your Writing

Striking the right tone in a cover or query letter is critical. Learning how to write a cover or query letter is like learning how to dress for an interview; while appearances aren’t everything, first impressions can be crucial.

Tone In Query Letters To Literary Agents

Taking an understated, professional approach suggests that the query letter needs no bells and whistles to be impressive: It’s the manuscript itself that shines.

Again, think of it as if your query letter is on a job interview. Don’t be overly formal and stuffy (you must appear approachable, and you don’t want to look as if you’re overcompensating by dressing your book up to look inappropriately eye-catching). But don’t be too casual either (you wouldn’t show up for an interview in your pajamas!).

Also, in the same way that you would avoid wearing a clown nose or light-up sneakers to an interview, avoid phrases and clever gambits that may come off as ploys to get attention. Clever can be annoying to agents reading letters by the thousands. If your query letter has a gimmick, literary agents may assume your book needs a gimmick to sell!

Literary agents want the facts—not the hype. And when you give a literary agent what he or she wants, you position yourself as a person who is professional, courteous, knowledgeable about publishing, and easy to work with.

The bottom line: Want to strike the right tone? Be straightforward, concise, and professional. Leave cute and clever to infomercials.

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Tone In Cover Letters To Editors Of Literary Magazines

The key to an effective cover letter is to be selective and succinct. The overworked, underpaid editor’s eyes are more likely to absorb information from three well-crafted sentences than from three well-crafted paragraphs.

At Writer’s Relief we recommend that our clients keep their list of accomplishments and publications to a brief bio paragraph. This means that if your work has appeared in 30 literary journals, it may be a good idea to list only the highest-ranked journals on your list. If you haven’t been published yet, don’t be afraid to throw in a few relevant details (Do you have a degree in engineering? Have you attended writing workshops, etc.?). Read more: No Publishing Credits? Get Publishing Credentials: How To Build Up Your Writing Bio Super Fast.

It is just as important to know what information to omit as it is to include. Therefore, we must stress that you should not describe the plot and themes of your poetry or short prose in a cover letter.

When you send your work to a literary magazine, your submission will be read regardless of the content of your cover letter. By explaining your plot or motifs, you might inadvertently imply that you suspect the editor must be lured into reading a submission (and that means you imply that he or she is slacking off!).

Also, explaining a story, poem, or essay in a cover letter is effectually saying to the editor that he or she is not intelligent enough to figure out the plot and themes on his or her own.

The bottom line: Keep your wording simple. If your cover letter represents that first business handshake, save your creative style for the focus of the presentation: your writing.

Writer’s Relief has been helping our clients prepare (and strike the right tone in) cover and query letters since 1994.

Photo by borman818

Writer QuestionsWRITERS: Give an example of an inappropriate sentence in a cover or query letter (keep it clean, please!).

12 Responses to Cover And Query Letters: Striking The Right Tone In Your Writing

  1. I’ll say this: I’ve never read the cover letter of anyone, nor have I ever had any indication than mines were ever read. Sometimes I wonder if cover letters arent some sort of practical joke gone wrong, played on us by career counselors.

  2. Hi there,
    reading Jason’s introduction to his manuscript, I found hilarious, and put me in mind of the film “Brassed off.” Several Americans I met whilst selling my self published book, remarked how they couldn’t quite understand the vocabulary of the actors, but howled with laughing at the scene of the two men stood on a girder ( they were trying to steel from a disused factory.}which rested on the roof of a semi submerged car in the canal, where a passer by on the far banking merely remarked {morning} as he walked past with his dog. Proving the point that real humour is universal. What a fabulous jape it would be, in trying to get an agent(which I long to achieve}, but start with a comment such as this guy, AND be accepted. Thank you so much for brightening my day.

  3. Attention agent:

    You can thank me later for the privelege of reading my manuscript. I’m sure you will agree it is the best piece of work written in a long, long time. It would be in your best interest to sign me, or you will regret it when I’m rich and famous and you’re still representing pretentious a@!$$*!@. You’d better sign me if you know what is good for you! If you don’t see this is a work of genius, you are a sorry excuse for an agent indeed!

  4. I just want to comment that the above comments have me cracking up, the last two, particularly. Great idea to have comments be what one would not say. Laughing at ourselves and this process is good (at least some of the time.)

  5. My Dearest Literary Agent,

    I’m pretty sure that this is the best freaking manuscript you will ever get, so you may as well publish it now, quit your day job, and live in the throes of my success forever.

    Your Genius Client.

  6. In response to a rejection letter:

    Dear Literary Agent, or as I thought of you till now, Snookums,

    What do you mean you’re not publishing my story/poem/book/Facebook comments? I shall not only UnLike your page, but will never submit to you again! I have seven blog followers, and will tell them all about your elitist behaviour. I’m a literary agent of the PEOPLE.

    Yours huffily, etc.

  7. Dear Literary Agent,
    What in the world make you think that you know better than me what writing is about!
    Go to hell, you pompous bastard!
    I won’t send you another manuscript until you have read this one and answered me that I am a genius!
    Ace Zed, who knows how to turn a letter so he stacks the odds in his favour…

  8. Yo, agent,

    My writing is sick nasty. I’ll earn big bucks. I promise, I’m awesome.

    Hollar back.


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