For the record, I'm hardly the final authority on writing. Really, I'm not an authority at all. One story published with the possibility of more in the future doesn't make me much more than a just-starting-out scrivener hanging from the bottom rung, but that doesn't mean I can't dispense advice about it. Maybe my experience, brief as it is, will keep others from repeating my mistakes. Opinions don't require authority.
While well-written stories are the absolute core of the writing business, a professional cover letter can help demonstrate to the overworked editorial staff that you're not just some simpleton who thinks their keyboard smashings the equal of Shakespeare. They're not absolutely necessary, but I've included one with every submission I've done. Recently, while going through my old text files, I found the cover letter I used for my first short fiction submission ever, for a stinker of a story called "Covenant of Ashes" back in 2007.
At the time I was a total piker, having only just lifted my head to the skies and realized that there were stars to reach for. I finished the story in a white heat while riding the Toronto Express south from Barrie and submitted it to Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, out of Australia. The rejection they gave me is the earliest in my file, and for that it'll always be relevant.
If the story itself was a stinker, though, the cover letter was the epitome of Trying Too Hard. Don't take my word for it, though - see it for yourself. This is exactly how it was sent, minus the redaction of personal information and the fixing of my email address to make it harder prey for the spam harvesters.
(city, province, postal code)
Email: apbarton at gmail dot com
To the Crew of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine,
I would like to submit my short story, "Covenant of Ashes," to be considered for inclusion in a future issue of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. It is a story that deals with the preservation of past knowledge in a post-apocalyptic setting.
I hold a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, where I spent three years on the editorial staff of the student newspaper Absynthe. I have been actively writing as a hobby since 1997, and am currently in the process of editing a novel-length story which I completed earlier this year. I have not yet been published professionally, but I believe my writing has reached a state where it is worthy of consideration.
Thank you for reading my story, and I hope it meets with your interest. If for any reason you wish to call me before June 15th, I can be reached at (phone number redacted). I can be reached by email at apbarton at gmail dot com. I hope that I will have the opportunity to discuss this with you further.
Obviously, what I did here was take a job application cover letter and modify it just enough to make it applicable to a story submission. What I didn't realize, though, as that almost everything I had in it was entirely irrelevant. If it's a sin to waste the reader's time, this cover letter's going to require a lot of redemption. The letterhead at the top was probably the only thing I did right.
The editors don't care where I went to school. They don't care what I might do in the future - that novel-length story, by the by, is still sitting in an unfinished fifth-draft state on my hard drive, and realistically would have to be rewritten from scratch in order to have a chance. They don't care what I THINK about my writing. The cover letter is thoughtful gift wrapping; the story it accompanies must stand on its own.
This was well before the time I discovered Robert J. Sawyer's website, particularly the "On Writing" section. He specifically warns against the sort of synopsizing I did in this letter. Today, my cover letters are three or four sentences at the most. There's absolutely no need for wordiness or over-explanation in a story cover letter. Reading it now, two years later it made me cringe - it really did.
Personally, I see the arrogance of inexperience in it. I'd been writing for ten years at that point, but with "Covenant of Ashes" I thought - wrongly, I've since decided - that I finally had something worthy of publication. I couldn't fathom the idea that the magazines to which I sent it would pass on it... but, somehow, they did.
Brevity is a virtue in short stories and the cover letters that accompany them. Save your ink, and don't waste the editor's time. They don't have nearly enough as it is.