Thursday, February 24, 2011

How to Query a Literary Magazine

I have a client who writes very tight, literary short stories. He has not been able to place them yet with a literary magazine, however. I asked to see his cover letter so I could critique it for him. The cover letter he was using was so representative of many earnest unpublished authors and so full of typical well-meaning noob mistakes, I thought I would make my critique public. A lot of people struggle with content on a query when they have nothing to say about writing career, previous publications, seemingly nothing to say at all. This letter follows all the rules of writing a query, and yet it's squeaking with awkwardness. It screams "Ignore me; I'm new."

The first step to a successful pitch to a literary journal is to write the best short story or poem you can possibly write. Write, rest, rewrite, rest, edit, line edit, format sensibly, print clearly.

The second step is to do a hell of a lot of research. Wear out your Google searching your target markets. If you can afford it, buy and read the physical publications. You will know within ten pages if your work is a fit for their editorial vision. The best story in the universe will not make it past the front door of a magazine that just doesn't do that type of thing.

The third step is to write a bitchin' query letter, or cover letter, and stick it on top.

Here's the original letter he sent me:

February 1, 2011

Fiction Editor
The Georgia Review
The University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602-9009

To Whom it May Concern,

Please consider my 1,200-word, previously unpublished manuscript, "[Title Redacted]" for publication at The Georgia Review. I am a previously unpublished writer, but I work with earnest on the craft. This piece is a part of a collection of stories that will one day comprise a novel.

This piece is being simultaneously submitted. I will notify you immediately upon an

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely yours,

[Name Redacted]

And here are my critiques:

1. Dude, find out the name of the editor you're addressing. It's not hard to do this research, especially with the internet. Even if you end up addressing it to someone more senior than the person who actually reads their slush, that's okay. It's better than "To Whom it May Concern." That is the kiss of death. For example, look here: Out of the staff listed I'd choose David Ingle to query.

2. Don't say you're previously unpublished. The fact that you're not mentioning pub credits tells them that, and you don't need to draw attention to it. You also REALLY don't need to say that this story specifically is previously unpublished. Now you just put the words "previously unpublished" twice in as many sentences. Did you want to add a neon sign over that? ;D

3. Put a little more color into it. Personal color and literary color. You don't have a publishing resume but you can say something about yourself that makes your query sound a little warmer, a little less robotic.

4. Not necessary to say you're simultaneously submitting -- just let them know if it gets accepted elsewhere. Paper and ink literary magazines do not move at a blinding speed -- it will be alright if something good happens somewhere else and you have to withdraw the submission for some reason.

5. It's good to thank the editor, but yours sounds very formal and therefore insincere.

Try this:

February 1, 2011

David Ingle
Assistant Editor
The Georgia Review
The University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602-9009

Hi David,

Please consider my 1,200-word, story, "[Title Redacted]," for publication at The Georgia Review. It's a Texas story, sparsely told, about a death in the family and also a death out in the yard. I'm a writer living in Mississippi with my wife, dog, and antique car collection.

Thanks for all you do -- I appreciate the time it takes to look this over, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely yours,

[Name Redacted]

I hope my client hits with this new query letter. His writing is great. However, his success in this will depend on his research skills, his ability to direct his work at the right market, and his willingness to exercise the same restraint in his pitch as he is able to pull off in his fiction. Play it cool, play it simple, play it warm but not hysterical, straight but not snippy.

Got any other advice for him? Should he leave out the bit about the antique cars? What's your go-to query line?


  1. This is an excellent article. I have found that writers tend to put too much into cover letters for literary magazines when really it should be very short, sweet, and simple.

    For any writers wishing to "do their homework", as you wisely advise, I would suggest a visit to The Review Review ( Yes, it's my own website, so please forgive the shameless self-promotion.

    We review journals, interview editors, and post weekly publishing tips for writers.



  2. Lydia,

    That is a great restructuring of your friend's cover letter. I would also suggest you point out to him that he should study a publication's submission guidelines before submitting. Had he done that, he would have found out that The Georgia Review does not accept simultaneous submissions. Although your cover letter revision edits out this piece of information, he should not submit his story anywhere else until hearing back from them. Either that or choose somewhere else to submit. Most places these days do accept simultaneous submissions, so there are plenty of other markets to query.

    Thanks again for this instructional and helpful post, as well as all the other writing tips you've posted.


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