Submitting your work for publication in literary journals is not that different from applying for a job. You want to put your best, most professional foot forward. However, the important thing in literary submissions is the writing itself. While you want to strike the right tone as you introduce yourself and your work, cover letters shouldn't eat up too much time. Here's how to pull all of this off.
Format the Letter Correctly
First, check the publisher's website to see if they provide guidelines for submissions. Many have specific requirements for cover letters for online, email, or paper submissions. Follow these guidelines carefully.
Save your creativity for the body of the letter -- or better yet, for your writing. Stick with the standard business letter format. Unless you have letterhead, which is not necessary, type your address followed by the date. Space down a line and list the name, title, and address of the person to whom you are writing.
For paper submissions, use standard copy paper; type, don't handwrite; and absolutely no illustrations.
Address a Specific Person
For the salutation, avoid "To Whom It May Concern." These days, most editors are listed in the masthead on the journal's site: take five minutes to find a name. Even if you are not positive you have the right person, you will look more professional for having tried, and the letter will be forwarded to the correct editor.
Keep It Short
As with a job application cover, letters should not exceed one page. In your first paragraph, explain what you are sending. This can be as straightforward as: "Enclosed please find a short story, 'Choose Me, Please!' which describes a game show contestant with Jumping Frenchmen of Maine disease." If you have a genuine reason for submitting to this journal, share it, but only if you can do so while sounding sincere.
Other First-paragraph Information
If the journal prefers to be informed ahead of time about simultaneous submissions, address that issue briefly by saying, "I have submitted these to a few other publications and will let you know immediately if any are accepted elsewhere." If you have been invited to re-submit, remind the editor that he or she has seen your work before.
Second Paragraph: Short Bio
Briefly introduce yourself to the editor. If you studied writing or have published before, state it here. If you haven't, that's fine, too. You just want to provide context for what they are about to read.
Keep in mind that many editors use this paragraph for the "Contributors' Notes" at the end of the journal, so think in terms of what you'd like listed at the back. You can look at some journals to see what other writers have to say about themselves.
Close Your Letter Politely
Thank the editor for reading your work, and close with the standard "Sincerely," or "Best regards." Leave four lines for your signature and then type your full name. For mailing, use a business-sized envelope. If your printer can handle envelopes, type the address, but it is also fine to address the envelope by hand. Again, use the editor's name here, either above the journal name or below the address. If you put it below, write, "Attn: [Insert Editor's Name]."
Include a SASE
Finally, for hard copy by mail submissions, be sure to include a stamped, addressed envelope (SASE) for a response. (It is perfectly acceptable to fold the SASE in three so that it will fit easily.) To save postage, you might also request that they not return your story to you, writing in a postscript: "Please recycle this story rather than returning it to me."
File Your Letters Electronically
Keep your first letter as a template, making adjustments for each journal. If you plan to submit to a journal more than once, save that letter separately under the journal's name. This saves you time if the story or poem gets accepted somewhere else and you have to write to withdraw your submission. In the beginning, you might try a few formulas and see what yields results. But again, the writing is the important thing. You can have the best cover letter in the world, but it won't get you anywhere without a great story to go along with it.
Read Other Examples
Everyone has a slightly different take on the art of cover-letter writing. You can read a variety of them online by simply searching for author cover letters.