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Academic Coaching & Writing

VI. Composing a Compelling Cover Letter

Mar 03, 2014 by Amy Benson Brown

Recently, a researcher asked me a question I bet many authors have wondered about: “Why bother to write a cover letter when the abstract and opening page of the article convey the essential information about the article’s subject and authors?”

That’s a reasonable question for researchers burdened with a thousand tasks, small and large. The cover letter certainly may appear perfunctory. But it’s worth your time for two reasons.

First, as I emphasized in the blog series about book proposals, publishing—at its deepest level—is still a business shaped by human relationships. Tailoring your cover letter to the interests of the individual editor who will read your article can help you make a good first impression. This is especially important if you have not had the opportunity to meet the editor at a conference or some other venue.

Second, cover letters matter because, like the abstract, they are short. In this age of information overload, small pieces of writing have an impact disproportionate to their size. Their very brevity, ironically, makes it more likely that they will actually be read. Just think of how much time you have to consider something new that comes across your desk or through your email. To get the most out of this potentially powerful little letter, consider the following suggestions.

Details Matter

Review the particular instructions to authors of the journal to which you are submitting your work and follow their guidelines about how to format the submission, including cover letter instructions. The following points, though, highlight what is most often expected of cover letters.

  • Use letterhead paper if the journal requires a paper submission. If the submission is electronic, either attach a digital copy of the formal cover letter or write an email with the same level of formality, including your full title and contact information in the signature.
  • Address the letter to a specific editor and, in the opening paragraph, ask him or her to consider the manuscript for publication. Believe it or not, many authors overlook this seemingly obvious detail.
  • Convey that this manuscript is not being considered for publication elsewhere. Simultaneous submissions can cause big problems for authors, reviewers, and journal editors; so, it’s best to only submit your article to one journal at a time.
  • Keep the cover letter’s length to one page (or a page and a half at the most). This generally translates into three to five paragraphs.
  • Provide the title of your paper and the names, titles, and addresses of all authors, if you have co-authors.

Make Your Case

Though a good title communicates much about a manuscript, don’t rely on the title alone to convey what your article is about. Describe the main idea of your work in a sentence or two in a way that underscores why it matters. Often, some background or contextual information will help the editor see the relevance of your manuscript.

The specifics of what is necessary to explain, of course, vary with each submission. But, since brevity is essential, carefully select a few specifics to elaborate. Philippa Benson and Susan Silver, in their excellent recent book (What Editors Want: An Author’s Guide to Scientific Journal Publishing, University of Chicago Press, 2013), recommend only making two or three points about your article. So, consider what information is most likely to make your case to the editor that this article is a good fit for this journal.

  • Is there new information presented?
  • Does this topic especially matter now for some particular reason?
  • Is there any contextual information about your article that the editor may be interested in or need to know to see the significance of the work?
  • Does the article have special relevance for this journal? For example, is your article likely to appeal to the journal’s readers because it responds to previous articles published there?
  • Does the design of your piece fit a particular ongoing forum within this journal? For example, some journals publish opinion articles on trends or controversies in the field, as well as research articles, and reviews.
  • Are there any ethical issues, such as a potential conflict of interest you need to bring to the editor’s attention?

Address Potential Conflicts of Interest

Though it’s only human nature to shy away from mentioning negative issues or potential conflicts, the cover letter is actually a great place to address any questions about the integrity of the research.

Editors appreciate a frank admission of a potential conflict of interest. So, if any such questions apply to your project, briefly state the nature of the potential conflict of interest. For example, perhaps you are the author of a textbook that you and your co-authors refer to in your argument. Or, perhaps the potential conflict relates to funding sources for part of the research.

Whatever the nature of the conflict, you want to be able to assure the editor that your work complies with the ethical guidelines of your field. For more on dealing effectively with such issues, I recommend Benson and Silver’s chapter “Ethical Issues in Publishing” and the chapter on ethics in Robert Day’s and Barbara Gastel’s classic guide, How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper (7th edition, Greenwood Press, 2011).

Of course, to address such issues succinctly in your cover letter, you need to be thoroughly familiar with the reigning ethical guidelines of your field—whether you are in the sciences, social sciences, or humanities. To offer just one example, psychologists can access the American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles for research and publication online. For more information on ethical guidelines related to publishing, consult the website of your own discipline’s primary professional society.

These resources on ethics and publishing research often also offer useful information on ethical issues that arise in peer review, so these guides are well worth investigating. The next blog in this series will turn to some of the most common questions article authors have about peer preview.

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