The thing is, with a couple of exceptions, almost no one makes any kind of effort with the covering letter. That's understandable enough in a way, after all, you've written this great story using every ounce of your creativity, so you just don't have much left when it comes to writing a letter to some bloke you've never met. And it's not like it really matters, is it?
Except that it does. I'm not saying that I'd ever reject a piece because of a poor covering letter, but the way people read things is influenced by their mood. If you've put me in a good mood, said hello, got me on side, then I'm likely to be more receptive than if you've wound me up by being arrogant, or by sending a blank email.
Some basic dos and don'ts that will improve your submissions anywhere, not just to grumpy people like me:
- If there's a name on the site for an editor, use it. It personalises things. Failing that, I'd rather see a blank top line than 'Dear Editor'. Although, this being me, something pointlessly odd like 'Dear Editory People' might actually work. Addressing me by the name of the magazine is a fifty-fifty call. On the one hand, it makes me feel nice and important. On the other, you couldn't be bothered to read the site, where my name is in quite large letters. Also, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a cupboard, even a gloomy one.
- Check your work. Done that? Do it again! I'm not necessarily going to assume that the version with the spelling and grammar mistakes is the best you can do. I'm also probably not going to make major corrections. I am going to assume that you couldn't be bothered. Oh, and make it easy for me to read. That means not putting 10000 words in the body of an e-mail unless the submission guidelines say to. That means following the submission guidelines. That means a file format the editor's computer likes, and a page layout that they can read. A little (or perhaps widely) known fact: sans-serif fonts are more legible from a distance, but they are much harder to read for long periods. Avoid them for your novella.
- Sometimes simple works. I'm quite happy with "please find attached for your consideration/I am writing to submit... Thank you for considering it." It's not as great as the best examples, but it's polite and it makes its point. If you can't do anything better, go with it. Worst case scenario: I assume that you are, like me, a bit short of social graces when it comes to anything clever on the letter writing front. Instant sympathy.
- What doesn't work quite so well is the above plus "I've been published in..." "I've been studying writing since..." "my hamster said that my work was..." (actually, I might enjoy that last, but only if it is something equally odd). I'm not knocking the author bio. I'm told it humanises writers, and some of them need all the help they can get. What I'm saying is that the place for this sort of thing is in a marked author bio, aimed at the readers. Putting it in the main body makes it sound like you're saying "all these other places loved me, so if you don't, there's something wrong with you". I'll have you know that there's nothing wrong with me that can't be fixed with about twenty miles of gaffer tape, thank you.
- Be nice, and be polite. It's obvious that you don't write anything insulting. It's slightly less obvious to some people that you don't treat it like a text message to your best mate. Proper words please, spelled vaguely correctly, and no swearing. No assuming that you know what I think, either. Most of the time, even I don't know what I think, so you've got no chance.
- Final one. If you can find a way to personalise things after all this, that is so much better. Tell me where you got the idea. Let me know what you were trying to do. Do something that makes things a touch less formal without spilling over into 5. A simple "I've read your magazine and I liked it" goes a long way, given that most online editors have a nagging worry that no one read the last issue, or that if they did, they didn't like it.
There. Now all you've got to do is do all that in a couple of sentences, send it off to me, and wait while I pick apart your beloved story. No, hang on, you were so busy doing all this that you've forgotten to attach it... (That happened to me once. It's even more embarrassing than it sounds)