Dispatches | September 10, 2012

Last week, I received my first request of the season for a letter of recommendation. If you’re thinking “Wait, it’s only September” you’re right, it is awfully early. But that’s a good thing! Nothing aggravates mentors more than being asked to write a LOR a week before the deadline. I’ve had students ask for a letter of recommendation that needed to be submitted in two days! I’m pretty sure I refused. Anyway, for the most part, I agree when asked to write a recommendation; usually, I’m asked for a LOR by a student who I’ve had a good working relationship for a long time, a student whose work is good enough to be accepted at a graduate level but also needs graduate level study.

I’m particularly happy about this recent request because this student isn’t fresh out of his undergraduate program. He went and did a couple of other things, including travelling and making music and studying something completely different than writing. Here’s the thing that’s really impressive: he’s still writing fiction and has published several of his stories. The latter doesn’t matter all that much to me, but the fact that he has continued to write post-college speaks volumes for his drive and his energy as a writer. He’ll be a terrific addition to any graduate program that accepts him.

What, though, do I say in a letter of recommendation? In this case, writing this particular letter won’t be a chore. I’m not really worried about that. What I’m concerned about is the people on the other side, the professor-writers at various MFA programs who will read my letter and use it to make a determination on whether or not my student is accepted to their program. I also know that what they really are concerned with is the writing sample; some claim to look at the writing sample and the writing sample only, but I don’t know if that’s true. That also might mean a good LOR is, potentially, a tiebreaker.

The way my mind works, the Who and the What and the Why of letter writing always brings me back around to the letters I see most: cover letters at The Missouri Review. I’ve been sending out stories for almost a decade now. I’ve worked at three different literary magazines. I’ve seen thousands of cover letters. And, like the letters of recommendation I’m going to write this fall (likely several of them), I know they don’t matter at all and they matter a tremendous amount.

Every submission to a literary magazine should come with a cover letter. Unless a magazine specifically states in the guidelines they do not want a cover letter because they read blind (and some magazines do this), a cover letter should always be included with your submission. It’s like wearing a suit to an interview. A submission to a literary magazine is a professional transaction—treat it like one. Try showing up for a job interview in a Hawaiian shirt and basketball shorts. It probably won’t go well.

Cover letters should include all your contact information. Name, address, phone number, email, and the titles of your piece(s). This is pretty simple. After that, things get a little dicey.

Should the cover letter be addressed to a specific person? Dear Editors, Dear Editor, Dear Mr. Morgan, Dear Dr. Morgan, Dear Speer Morgan, Dear Dr. Speer Morgan, Dear Speer Laddie, To Whom It May Concern, Dear Intern Reading This, Dear Fiction Editors, Dear Fiction Editor, What’s Up Doc?, and so on … the possibilities may go on and on. Honestly? I can’t say any of these are wrong when sent to The Missouri Review. We’re going to read the work one way or the other. It does help to know if your submission is, say, fiction or nonfiction, but other than that, it really doesn’t matter. We understand. But there are magazines out there that will get their shorts in a knot if you don’t acknowledge the editors doctorate or spell a name right. Again: follow each magazine’s specific guidelines.

Should there be a subject line? Something like “RE: Fiction Submission” or “RE: ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ – fiction submission'”? This does help our office staff. This makes getting your work to the correct reader easier. But, it doesn’t make a huge difference.

What most worries writers, I think, is the body of the letter. What to say? What if the writer knows the staff? How well? What if the writer is unpublished? What if the writer has published dozens of pieces? And so on.

Short and sweet is really the way to go here. Including every magazine you’ve ever published in is probably overkill: mention four to six places, and then move on. Don’t explain what your story is “doing”: we’ll figure that out when we read it. Don’t be too clever or cute. Yeah, if you’ve had some interaction with us—an encouraging rejection, met us at AWP, liked a story from a previous issue—definitely say so, but again, don’t spend a ton of time on this: two or three sentences will do it.

That’s really it. If you’ve never been published before? Say so. “If accepted, this would be my first published story.” All literary magazines love being the one to publish a writer for the first time, so acknowledging this possibility can only help.

A professional cover letter is all we ask, and even minus that, if the work is excellent, we don’t really care. We want to publish the best work we read, regardless of whether or not you’re an emerging writer or an established one. So: Our guidelines are here—fire when ready! We’ll be here, reading and reading and reading.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye