What We're Looking for in a Cover Letter

Photo: Patrick Fore/Unsplash

Photo: Patrick Fore/Unsplash


By John Flynn-York

Here at Automata, we think a cover letter—the email you send when you submit work to us—should be functional and to the point. We’d love to tell you that you don’t need a cover letter at all. But they’re helpful, if for no other reason than they make the submitter (that’s you! Or you, soon, we hope) a little more human. And getting a blank email with an attachment feels… well, a bit abrupt.

So: cover letters. Nothing in a cover letter—barring outright hostility, insulting language, or other inappropriate material—will stop us from considering your work.[1] We’ll even read work with no cover letter, although logic suggests that if we’re here telling you we like to see cover letters, maybe it’s a good call to write us one.

But what to put in, what to leave out? We thought it would be helpful for you, the potential submitters-to-Automata, to know what we like to see, rather than us just hoping silently that you can read our minds. (And, if you’ve submitted work to us before, don’t worry if you haven’t done things the way we suggest here. We’re trying to be helpful, that’s all.)

So here are a few suggestions[2] from us. Other lit mag editors may feel differently, although we have a strong hunch they will agree with us.[3]


1. A greeting

Necessity of including this: High

We will not take offense if you address us as “Editors,” because that’s what we are. You can address us by our first names, if you so choose. Last names? Okay, a little formal, but sure. And honestly, you can just say “Hi.”[4] But put something there.

Where it goes: First, of course

2. The title of your submission, its word count, and possibly its genre

Necessity of including this: Also high

It’s helpful to have all that information up front; genre is optional because really, we’re not entirely sure how to classify some of the stuff we get, and that’s okay. If you’re not sure either? Totally cool. Leave it out. But still tell us the title and word count. You do not need to tell us what the story is about—leave that up to the story itself.

Where it goes: After the greeting

3. A very short bio

Necessity of including this: Optional, but recommended

As in, one line, maybe two. What you choose to put here is not all that important—you can tell us you’re a social worker or a lawyer, like snails or dogs, enjoy gardening or laser tag (if that’s still a thing?). We are not going to accept or reject your submission on the basis of this information. So why put it in? It makes you more of a person to us. And if you want to include a link to your website, feel free to do so, but we won’t necessarily look at it. But we might!

Where it goes: Either after the info about your story, or after the closing, in a new paragraph

4. A short list of publications

Necessity of including this: Optional, but recommended if you’ve published work before

Emphasis on “short.” List three or four of the most prominent places. No more than that. If you haven’t published work before? No big deal, don’t worry about it, and also, don’t mention it. It is nice to know that a writer has had some success but it will not affect whether we accept a work.

Where it goes: Directly before or after the bio, in the same paragraph

5. A closing

Necessity of including this: Yes

“Best,” “Regards,” “Thanks,” or anything like that, followed by your name—all these work. Again, though it may seem like a formality, it goes towards making our interaction with you more human and less mechanical. And even though the site is called Automata, we are humans, we like other humans, so try to convey to us that you are one.[5]

Where it goes: At the end, although the bio can come after the closing


1. Everything else

Necessity of including this: Nonexistent

Seriously, there’s nothing else that we need to know. But for clarity’s sake:

—   We will assume you are submitting your work to multiple places (“simultaneous submissions”). Given how long it takes some places to respond, we think it’s unfair to writers to expect exclusivity, though we understand why some places ask for it. We don’t. Send your work out far and wide! (But tell us if it gets accepted somewhere else.)

—   Put your address, your phone number, your email, etc. in the attached story at the top left of the first page, not in the cover letter.

Where it goes: Nowhere


For clarity’s sake, here is an example of a cover letter which does all the things we like to see.

Dear editors,

Attached, please find my 3,000 sci-fi/horror story “Down in the Hole” for your consideration.

My work has appeared in The Short Bear Review and Holiday Times Express. I am a biologist by training and I enjoy watching seagulls.


Jane Doe


Because one is never enough!


I’m submitting my short story “Charles in Charge: A Retrospective” for your consideration. It’s 1,500 words and contains elements of fantasy.


John Doe

Bio: John Doe is an avid pinball player and lives in Missoula, MO.


Pattern recognition starts with three instances.

Hi Automata Editors,

My 900-word story “All the Leaves Turned a Bright Shade of Orange” is attached for your review.

My bio: Jesse Doe writes fiction and poetry. Their work is forthcoming in the anthology End of Days: Apocalyptic Fiction from Z to A and has appeared in The Redwood Review and Flimflam! They[6] are currently working on a novel.


Jesse Doe


If you’ve made it this far, you really, really care about cover letters. So here’s a final note: by all means, inject a tiny bit of humor or creativity if you want to. It’s nice to have the routine broken up a little. But this is not necessary. Save the juice for your writing![8]

And that's it. Happy cover lettering!


[1] If you put that stuff in a cover letter, even as a joke, we will not read your work. So don’t do it.

[2] We are super chillaxed about this stuff, honestly, and these really are all suggestions and nothing more, and this whole post is written in a spirit of “maybe people are wondering what to put in a cover letter to an online lit mag” rather than a spirit of “don’t do X or Y thing anymore!”

[3] If you happen to be a lit mag editor and you are reading this and thinking “YES! AT LAST SOMEONE DESCENDED INTO THE MINUTIAE OF LIT MAG COVER LETTER ETIQUETTE,” by all means link to this if you want to. If you disagree with us? We’ll happily listen to your thoughts. But this is what works for us.

[4] Believe it or not, there are debates about whether the greeting “Hi [name]” requires a comma between “Hi” and “[name]”. In fiction? Always! In a cover letter? Leave it out.

[5] Unless you’re actually not, and are instead a robot, an alien, a sentient fungus, a hive mind(s), or any other type of as-yet-not-known-to-send-emails-to-lit-mags consciousness, in which case, let’s talk.

[6] We embrace singular they. Enough said.

[7] © Apple, we think, but we’re using it anyway. Apple Lawyers: write to us care of Hewlett-Packard, and we will reword.

[8] A note, alas, we should have taken ourselves when spending entirely too much time writing this post.