The Practical Editor: Cover Letters

As Nimrod’s Editor, I’ve offered workshops and Q&As on a variety of writerly topics, and some of my favorite workshops are those about the practical aspects of being a writer. Writing can be a lonely business, and even with the many resources available to writers online, I’ve found that writers appreciate the chance to ask an editor direct questions, questions that might seem simple, but that can lead to anxiety when you aren’t sure of the answer. “What does SASE mean?” “What does an agent do?” “Where can I find out about writing contests?”—these are the kinds of questions I get again and again, so I’m starting a series called “The Practical Editor” here on our blog that will go through some of the most common questions I receive. I’m going to start with the first thing an editor sees when you submit your work: your cover letter.

In general, a submission to a literary journal has two main components: your manuscript and a cover letter. Today I want to talk about what a cover letter should look like and what information it should contain. (We’ll go through manuscript formatting another day.)

Cover Letter Basics

A cover letter is your greeting to the journal or magazine. It should be no more than one page and should provide your contact information, information about your submission, and some information about you. There may be other schools of thought, but I like a simple, direct cover letter—and you will certainly never go wrong with one. Let’s break the elements down, and then we’ll look at a sample cover letter.

Information on your submission

Your cover letter should include the titles of the works you are submitting. For poetry, list each poem. For fiction or creative nonfiction, also include a word count, rounded to the nearest hundred words. (You normally do not need to include a word or line count for poetry unless requested.)

Information about yourself

Your cover letter should contain a brief and relevant biographical statement about yourself. Your bio will change depending on where you are in your literary career, but some basic elements are previous publication credits and/or awards, and any relevant writing degrees, workshops, jobs, or writing experience. In general, a cover letter bio statement should not exceed 100 words. This may mean that you don’t get to include all of your publication credits, but that’s fine—just pick the most impressive. I’m personally a fan of the third-person bio (which means less work for the journal if it accepts your work), but you can also write your statement in first person. If you don’t have any previous publication credits or writing experience, it’s perfectly okay to say something like, “Eilis O’Neal is a writer from Tulsa, Oklahoma. If this piece is accepted, this will be her first publication.”

Your contact information

This is the most important part of a cover letter and the most obvious part, but it’s also one that I have seen overlooked on multiple occasions. You want to make sure that the journal has your contact information at their fingertips—because how else will they get in touch with you if they want to publish your work? Your cover letter should contain your name, mailing address, preferred phone number, and preferred email. Make sure these are updated and accurate.

Sample Cover Letter

The following is the cover letter template that I used when I was regularly sending out short stories several years ago. It’s simple, direct, and conveys all the information I need it to.

Dear Mr. Grant,

I am submitting “The Sleeper” (5,400 words) for consideration in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet.


Eilis O’Neal lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she is Managing Editor of Nimrod International Journal. Her short fantasy has appeared in Fantasy Magazine, Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Zahir: A Journal of Speculative Fiction, and others.

I look forward to any comments you might give, and thank you for your time and energy.


Eilis O’Neal

Additional Cover Letter Tips

Now that we’ve gone through the basic cover letter, here are some additional dos and don’ts.

  • Length: Keep your cover letter to one page—anything longer is excessive and probably won’t be looked at.
  • Salutation: Double check the name of the editor to whom you address your submission on the journal’s website, which will have the most updated information. Make sure that you spell the name correctly, and if you aren’t sure of the person’s gender, just say “Dear Full Name.” If you aren’t sure to whom you should address the submission, “Dear Editors” is always acceptable.
  • Fonts and paper: Use a 12-point standard font, such as Times New Roman. Print your cover letter on plain white paper or professional-looking letterhead. Avoid anything overly colorful or with loud prints.
  • Simultaneous submissions: If the journal accepts simultaneous submissions and you are making one, say so.
  • Irrelevant bio information: Keep it professional. Don’t tell the editor the names of your dogs, offer to buy then beer if you ever meet, or mention how you love bungee jumping (unless your story is about bungee jumping, at which point that becomes relevant information). I’m also not a fan of any sort of “artistic statement/philosophy” simply because they often sound trite and may be at odds with the editor’s own ideas on the subject.
  • Jokes: Likewise, avoid jokes or being silly. I know that it can be a temptation to try to loosen a cover letter up, but too often being actively joke-y just comes off as unprofessional.
  • Finally, let your work speak for itself. One of the reasons that I advocate for a simple cover letter is that it doesn’t detract from the most important piece of your submission: your manuscript. That’s what the editor is really here to see, and a simple cover letter doesn’t clog the editor’s brain with information they don’t need and that might prejudice them against your work before they’ve even read it.

In Conclusion

Obviously, all this advice should be taken with this grain of salt: The journal that you’re submitting to may have specific guidelines for cover letters and, if so, you should follow them. Also, if you are submitting online, they may have an online form for cover letters that may change what information you can include. If they don’t mention specific guidelines, however, a cover letter like the one I’ve described will always look professional and provide the journal with the basic information they need to review and respond to your work.

*If there are topics that you would like to see covered in future posts on “The Practical Editor,” leave a comment below or email us at


Eilis O’Neal is Nimrod‘s Editor-in-Chief. She is also a writer of fantasy and the author of the young adult fantasy novel The False Princess.

Building a Literary Tulsa

by Helen Patterson

Tulsa has always loved culture and books, but as technology enables writers to travel and tour regularly, Midwest cities like Tulsa find new possibilities to actually engage with the writers they love. In the past five years, many writers have visited Tulsa, including Chuck Palahniuk, Colm Toibin, David Sedaris, Elizabeth Gilbert, Stephen King, and Meg Cabot. We also have been graced by less well-known authors, promising new authors, and literary and academic authors writing for niche audiences.

Tempting authors to visit a city is a beginning, not the end: I’ve found myself wondering how a city such as Tulsa becomes a literary city. Not just a place where authors show up and people collect their signed books like collector’s cards, but a place that actively encourages the discussion and exchange of ideas, a place that nurtures and supports writers.

The existence of writing and writers is precarious—cities need a collection of citizens and organizations dedicated to promoting and nurturing the arts. Fortunately for Tulsa, we have many local organizations, including but not limited to the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities, Nimrod International Journal, the Tulsa Literary Coalition, and the Tulsa City-County Library.

Traditionally, universities are bastions of learning, but they can be insular and indifferent to the welfare of the cities that host them. The existence of organizations reaching out to the public, supported by the university, help bridge this gap. My alma mater, The University of Tulsa, has Nimrod International Journal and the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities. Founded in 2014, the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities draws interdisciplinary discussion by recruiting fellows from varied disciplines and backgrounds to research and explore a particular theme (food is the theme for 2016-2017). Since its inception, the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities has held lectures, book discussions, and other events open to the public, as well as the annual Arts and Humanities Festival with faculty and student participants.

Nimrod recruits writers from around the country and the world, highlighting their work and inviting the public to interact with and learn from other writers and readers during its annual Conference. In both cases, young students at TU and from other universities and even high schools make up a large portion of the audience. By building bridges between the community and the university and appealing to the young, Nimrod helps to promote a literary Tulsa by transmitting a love of literature and learning to the rising generation.

As of 2015, Tulsa also hosts the not-for-profit Tulsa Literary Coalition, dedicated to bringing writers into the city, promoting local writers and others through interdisciplinary discussion, and sparking a passion for words in the young and the old. Through Booksmart Tulsa, the coalition invites authors to come to Tulsa, discuss their works and their writing processes, and speak to locals. The Tulsa Literary Coalition is also planning on opening Magic City Books, an independent bookstore which will support the coalition, this year in the Brady Arts District. By exposing ourselves to visiting authors, and visiting authors to us, Tulsa weaves its way into the national literary conversation and encourages its citizens to write, read, and love literature.

If you live in Tulsa county and haven’t visited your local library recently, perhaps the news that Tulsa City-County Library is a finalist for the 2017 National Medal for Museum and Library Service will encourage you to visit. As an employee of TCCL I am biased, but Tulsa is incredibly fortunate to have such a robust and energetic public resource for both adults and children. A few weeks ago, I attended TCCL’s presentation of the Anne V. Zarrow Award for Young Reader’s Literature to Laurie Halse Anderson (pictured below, left), who is best known for her challenging YA novels. As part of the evening, Anderson presented the awards for Tulsa’s annual Young People’s Creative Writing Contest. Seeing these young writers’ excitement over the formal presentation of the awards and meeting a famous author made it clear Tulsa fosters a love of writing at a young age.

Helen Patterson Laurie Halse Anderson

I’m not a native Tulsan or Okie, but in the seven years I’ve been here I’ve seen the arts scene in Tulsa expand and thrive as Tulsa makes a conscious effort on many fronts to be a literary city. I plan on being a writer in a city that cares about writing—and wants future generations to care, too.  If you live in Tulsa, explore this city and all that it offers. If you don’t, consider applying for the Tulsa Arts Fellowship, designed both to support locals and to appeal to national talent. If that doesn’t tempt you, come for Antoinette’s coconut cream pie: David Sedaris said it was one of the best desserts he had ever eaten.

Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.

In Praise of the Particular: The Poetry of Millen Brand


by John Coward


I can’t explain why, but my literary taste runs toward the particular, the actual, the concrete. To put it another way, I prefer reading about things that are—or appear to be—real. That would explain my continuing interest in the American poet Millen Brand (1906-1980). Brand is probably best known for a novel called The Outward Room (1937), a Depression-era story of a young woman escaping an insane asylum and struggling to regain her sanity. Brand’s poetry, by contrast, is understated and much less dramatic. In Local Lives (1975), Brand highlights the small but crucial elements that make up the lives of ordinary people in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. This is a poetry book that opens with a map of villages with names such as Seisholtzville, Green Lane, Long Swamp, and Huff Church. That’s part of the “real” that attracts me to Local Lives.

Born in New Jersey, Brand was of Pennsylvania German descent through his mother. Brand studied at Columbia University and later worked as a psychiatric aide, an experience that informed the plot of The Outward Room. In 1940, after many years in New York, Brand moved to Crow Hill, overlooking Bally, Pennsylvania, where his writing life changed. He began to appreciate the lives of his neighbors, who were old German families of Mennonite, Amish, Brethren, Quaker, and Catholic persuasion. “I had a house, barn, and some acres of land,” Brand wrote, “and for the first time in many years I had a sense of community.” These people and this particular American place inspired the poems in Local Lives. Brand’s motives, as he explained, were as simple as they were noble: “I was impelled by a sense of valuable lives going unrecorded.”


I should note here that Brand’s poems are not traditional verse—no rhymes here, no rhythm or meter. For Brand, poetry was an open form. Thus Local Lives included, as Brand himself noted, “skills, trades, anecdotes, ledger entries, letters, even two recipes.” In fact, the first poem in Local Lives is “Bread,” which opens with these lines: “Heat fat. Pour it into the flour. / Some salt for sweat and for the sea. / Some sugar for the little ones’ tongues.” In short, Brand’s poems are flat, more prose than traditional poetry. But what the poems lack in lyricism, they make up in plainspoken clarity. Brand’s poems are unadorned, bits of speech and story recorded and set down in short, irregular lines.

This sort of poetry can be dull, but in Brand’s deliberate hands, these poems capture something small but essential about these good people. Consider this poem, published in its entirety:

A Little Thing

(Squire Benfield talking)

‘The Devil’s Hole?’ That’s a stretch of road
from Huff’s Church down toward Clayton.
In the days when that was a dirt road,
a farmer once drove with mules,
and his wagon got stuck in the mud.
The mules could hardly lift their legs.
‘This is a devil of a hole,’ he said.
Since then it’s called The Devil’s Hole.
That shows, doesn’t it,
how long a little thing can be remembered?

This poem, told as a bit of stray conversation, recalls a seemingly insignificant incident. Such moments, I posit, make up the substance of the daily life we all experience but rarely stop to consider. In Local Lives, Brand succeeds by preserving common stories from real people—ordinary but actually amazing people—whose place and time and simple humanity are worth remembering and contemplating today. Find an old copy of Local Lives and see for yourself.

John Coward teaches media studies and journalism at The University of Tulsa. He is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the author of, most recently, Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

All They Will Call You

by Diane Burton

“Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won’t need a name when you ride the big airplane
And all they will call you will be ‘deportee.’”

On April 24, 2017, Tim Z. Hernandez spoke to a full house at Tulsa’s Woody Guthrie Center about his book, All They Will Call You:  The Telling of the Plane Wreck at Los Gatos Canyon (U Arizona P, 2017). I was lucky enough to attend the event and want to let Nimrod followers know about it and about Hernandez’s powerful project: restoring the names and stories of the Mexican guest workers who died in the crash, and building a memorial to them that includes their names and their story.

W.H. Auden famously said, “Poetry makes nothing happen.”  While he said this in retreat from his own politically engaged writing, it’s often taken as a warning that poetry should not aim to make things happen—a caution against shortsighted topicality and future unforeseen consequences.  But Hernandez’s efforts, inspired by a poem by Woody Guthrie, make me wonder if Auden was mistaken; maybe poetry can make some things happen, if not in action in the world, in action in our memories and consciousness.

The Plane Crash
The book is based on a plane crash at Los Gatos Canyon, California, January 28, 1948, that killed all 32 people aboard the aircraft, including the crew (pilot, copilot, stewardess), a guard, and at least 28 Mexican guest workers, 27 men and one woman.  The plane’s left engine caught fire, the left wing fell off, and the plane blew up, leaving no survivors and scattering the remains of the dead across the canyon.

Press coverage named the crew and the guard but not the Mexican workers, which outraged Woody Guthrie, who read about it in New York and wrote a poem, “Plane Crash at Los Gatos (Deportee).”  Years later, in 1957, after Guthrie’s death, the poem was set to music by Martin Hoffman, a Colorado college student, in the form of a valsera ranchera, a song of loss or lamentation, in 3/4 time, a form popular in Mexico.  Hoffman played it for Pete Seeger after a concert by the folksinger and friend of Guthrie in Colorado; Seeger was impressed and later recorded it and played it at concerts.  The poem and its haunting melody appealed immediately to audiences and other musicians, who continued to play it and play it still. It has become one of the most beloved of Guthrie’s songs.

Photo of Woody GuthriePhoto by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?”
In 2010, poet and novelist Hernandez set out to recover the names and the stories of the people who died in the crash.  Two days after the wreck, the Fresno paper published a partial and inaccurate list of names; the hall of records in Fresno had another list with more names, still inaccurate; El Faro, a Spanish language newspaper in Fresno, published a full list, with names, hometowns, and the names of surviving family members, but the newspaper was not available in archives.  While the Anglos’ remains were returned to their families for burial, the guest workers were buried in a mass unmarked grave in Holy Cross Cemetery, Fresno.  Their families were not notified.  The workers’ “names were as dismembered as the bodies they belonged to,” Hernandez writes.

He set out to restore their identities and commemorate their lives, eventually raising the funds for a memorial stone, which was dedicated on Labor Day, 2013, in a ceremony attended by more than 800 people.  The stone measures 8’ x 4’ and records the story of the plane crash, in Spanish and in English, followed by the full names of all those on board, surrounded by engravings of 32 dry leaves.

With the task complicated by the careless American recordkeeping of Mexican workers (giving a new twist to the term “undocumented workers”), Hernandez went to Mexico, looking for the workers’ families.  He found survivors of four of them.  Their stories form the heart of the book.


All They Will Call You
Hernandez’s book is a gathering of stories, some the testimony of witnesses to the crash and its aftermath, some the memories of the workers’ loved ones, some the story of the poem and song that inspired the search, some relating the search itself, and one a chilling reimagining of the crash itself.  Not all the stories agree exactly and Hernandez expressly declines to pronounce on an official version, a final truth, stating in his crucial author’s note that the book’s “loyalty is not to people of fact but rather to people of memory.”

In his presentation at the Guthrie Center, Hernandez retraced the process of finding the stories through finding the people who told them; he calls the people he interviewed “story keepers.” His talk included multiple media—readings from the book, photographs, videos, and audio recordings of the people involved—all fascinating, but most impressive of all was Hernandez himself.  Eager to follow the story wherever it might lead, he is devoted to honoring the memories of people whose fates had been dismissed.  It was easy to imagine people opening up to him, sharing their comic stories and their painful loss.   Warm, friendly, engaged, animated, his delivery emphasized the people who died in the crash and the people who remembered them, bringing the former to life figuratively and the latter literally: he had brought with him members of the Ramirez family, descendants of Ramon Paredes Gonzalez and Guadalupe Ramirez Lara, who had helped Hernandez with research for the book, providing the definitive list of the dead from an ancient copy of El Faro.  They were joined as well by relatives of the family who now live in Tulsa, all meeting at the Woody Guthrie Center, a neat confluence that further illustrated Hernandez’s emphasis on the personal relations that lie at the base of individual stories and human history.

And this is the remarkable thing about Hernandez’s accomplishment, in his book, in his presentation, in his work on the memorial:  He never allows us to lose sight of his people’s individual lives, despite the temptation to read their stories in relation to the current political conditions.  As incensed as he is by the way the people’s names are lost as they are reduced to the label “deportee,” he resists reducing them further through a facile parallel between the immigration problems of 1948 and those of today.

Hernandez is careful to explain the braceros program—an agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments (1942-1964) for importing agricultural workers (and later other workers) from Mexico to replace American workers who were in the Armed Forces during WWII, an agreement that benefited American employers and contractors as well as the cash-poor farmers of western and central Mexico, who came to the United States for seasonal work, sent money home, returned to Mexico, then came back to work in the U.S. to earn money again. Among the migrant workers were contadas (contract workers) and contrabandas (workers who came without contracts); the deportations rounded up workers whose contracts had expired or who had no contracts; some of the workers on the plane had come on contract, others not, some had been on contract in the past but not on this trip.

For years, the braceros program provided minimal safeguards for wages and living conditions among migrant workers.  When the program ended, so did any attempt at labor regulation for farm workers, and employers accustomed to a cheap government-sanctioned labor force resisted paying higher wages, spurring farm workers to organize.

The political situation today is related, of course, but also very different.  In both his book and his presentation, Hernandez refuses to oversimplify the relationship between conditions now and those in 1948.  What his telling insists upon, instead, is the dehumanization that results from regarding people as aliens—from denying them the courtesy and respect all of us owe to each of us.  In Hernandez’s powerful work, the personal becomes political only and always as the political remains personal.

Diane Burton is an associate editor of Nimrod.  She retired from teaching at The University of Tulsa two years ago.