How to Grab an Editor’s Attention: Bragging (Politely) in Your Query Letter–With Example


For those of you who are shy and don’t like bragging about your publishing credits for fear of being impolite, stop being shy!  Literary journal editors and literary agents WANT to hear about that stuff!  A query letter and a cover letter are like job interviews.  Proving that you’re a qualified writer helps you–and your short story–get the job!  And, if you’ve been following along, and read my last post about how to win writing contests, talking about your past publications boosts your chances.  (Unfair to the brand new writer, maybe.  But they are like recommendation letters, illustrating your past quality work and dedication to writing).  As Brevity: a journal of concise literary nonfiction encourages in their blog, yes, you CAN and you SHOULD tell people about your accomplishments!

Here’s my example bio paragraph of a query letter and/or cover letter:

I recently graduated from Bloomsburg University with dual degrees in Creative Writing and History. My writing has received the 2009 and 2011 Bloomsburg University English Department Award for Creative Non-Fiction, the 2009 Fuller Fiction Award, the 2011 Savage Poetry Award, and 2nd place in The Baltimore Review’s 2011 creative non-fiction contest. I have had work appear or forthcoming in Inside Pennsylvania, The Stillwater Review, and The Honors Review.

This is the appropriate way–the way that editors expect–you to present yourself.  The facts, without inappropriate bragging embellishments like “I am a super talented writer,” or “you’ll love every word I blessed the page with.”  After the introductory paragraph with information such as the title, genre, word count, and brief summary of your short story submission, you slap in this form biography paragraph.

The Formula for a Biography Paragraph in Your Query Letter:

Your credentials (usually only mention this if you majored in writing somewhere or majored in whatever topic you’re writing about and furthers your credentials.  Bonus points if you have an MFA from a renown writing program).  Any awards your writing has won.  Where you’ve been published before.

Throwing out a question to any readers out there:  do you add anything else personal in your cover letters and query letters?  How much is too much personal information?  Any recommendations for what to put if you have no publishing credits or haven’t won a writing contest yet?

Jumping off of a recent discussion over at storynomad’s blog, should female writers sign their query letters and cover letters with gender ambiguous pen-names for the sake of upping their chances at getting published?  I don’t like to think that the literary world is still dominated by stereotypes and ruled by the “good ol’ boys,” but the percentage of male writers being published in literary journals over female writers is startling, according to the 2010 statistics by Vida.

But, according to Nobel Prize winner VS Naipaul, it doesn’t matter whether women use male pen-names or not anyway because he has super reader radar that can identify the gender of the writer based on the quality of the writing.  According to him, if it the writing isn’t nearly as good has his own, it’s obviously a woman’s creation.  Even Jane Austin pales in comparison to his dazzling writing talent.  I highly recommend reading the appalling article.  Would love to hear your opinions on the matter, so feel free to share!

On a personal note, it’s Sunday so normally I’d be lamenting the lack of postal service.  I’ve been so busy today though, moving in to NYU’s Summer Publishing Institute, meeting my new roommates, walking through a street fair that conveniently occurred below my dorm window (where I bought a bonsai tree!!  Here’s crossing my fingers I don’t kill it) that I didn’t have time to mope.

But, for consistency, I shall post my ongoing literary magazine submission waits:

  1. Painted Bride Quarterly (date submitted: January 4th; what submitted: 1 fiction, 1 non-fiction)  
  2. Cicada (date submitted: February 16th; what submitted: 2 poems)
  3. matchbook (date submitted: March 7th; what submitted: 1 short short fiction)
  4. The Susquehanna Review (date submitted: March 14th; what submitted: 1 fiction, 2 non-fiction)
  5. Zahir (date submitted:  April 25th; what submitted: 1 fiction)
  6. Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle (date submitted: May 11th; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)
  7. Brevity (date submitted: May 19th; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)
  8. Owl Eye Review (date submitted: June 1st; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)
  9. Palooka (date submitted: June 1st; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)
  10. storySouth (date submitted: June 1st; what submitted: 1 fiction)
  11. Weave magazine (date submitted:  June 1st; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)

While you’re waiting, write, submit, and water your bonsai trees!  I watered mine today :]


10 thoughts on “How to Grab an Editor’s Attention: Bragging (Politely) in Your Query Letter–With Example

  1. freedomtights says:

    Great post! Lucky for me I have a uni-sex name so I don’t have to worry about the ol’ gender politics of big boys in lit.

  2. Amanda Surowitz says:

    Thank you so much for this advice! I’m working on my first submission to Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, and I’m glad I came across this. My only question is about credentials: are high school publications acceptable?

    • hannahkarena says:

      I’m glad you found it helpful! As for your high school publication credits: I’ve gotten advice before that you should include them if they’re your only credit, to illustrate that you’re committed to writing and getting published. If you’ve been published elsewhere, then leave the high school publications off and namedrop the publications that the editors would be more familiar with.

      I once heard the editors at Philadelphia Stories at a conference say how they actually love being the ones who “discover” a new writer and can give them their first publication credit.

      Good luck!!!

  3. Carol Deminski says:

    Okay, I had to comment on this one… you say:

    “After the introductory paragraph with information such as the title, genre, word count, and brief summary of your short story submission, you slap in this form biography paragraph.”

    I’m 100% fine with title, genre (only if requested/required) word count. I’m with you on all that stuff…

    then I come to:

    – and brief summary of your short story submission –

    Editors typically don’t want you to summarize your story. They want to read the work themselves and make up their own minds.

    Take a look at the Duotrope Editor Interviews. Actually, on Duo it’s nice because you can click on any single editor interview question and see how all editors replied to the question.

    Here are a few excerpted answers to the question “What do submitters most often get wrong about your submissions process?”

    Another pet peeve of mine is summaries of the story in the body of the email submission. It almost always taints my take on the story and not in a good way.
    —Drew Lackovic, Fiction Editor for Ontologica on 06 October 2011

    I think one of the biggest things I get, and this may just be me, is long synopses in the cover letters. Often, the story doesn’t live up to the synopsis and I become frustrated. I would rather people just give me a short bio and let the work speak for itself.
    —Peter Lucas, Managing Editor for Prime Mincer on 05 August 2011

    Giving a plot summary in the cover letter (sometimes, all you have going for you is surprise)….
    —Shawn Garrett, Managing Editor for Pseudopod on 29 January 2012

    Food for thought. 🙂

  4. hannahkarena says:

    By brief, I mean one sentence–a one-liner hook. I agree that editors don’t want a big old summary of your short story, but it’s important to give them something (word count, genre, hint at the central drama). Obviously, the focus of this post is about the author bio, not the “summary” paragraph, but I think it’s high time I do a post about it. I’ll give an example of my very brief short story cover letter in an upcoming post to show what I mean. It’ll fit nicely with the theme since I just posted an example query letter.

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