Our Top Ten Tips for Writing a Tip Top Covering Letter

No. 6: There are plenty more clichés in the sea

Clichés exist for a reason. Because they generally work. They usually make a good point and/or have been borrowed from Shakespeare. And they don’t really do anyone that much harm.

But you should do all you can to keep them out of your covering letter and here’s a slightly convoluted story to explain why:

One September when I was still at school my drama teacher returned after a long and arduous summer to dispense some irreplaceable advice. This teacher was one of those brilliantly sparky people who never seem to run out of energy but she greeted us that morning with an uncharacteristically deflated air.

It turned out that while we had been lazing about in the sun our lovely, sparky teacher had volunteered to spend her summer marking the nation’s exam papers. From what I know of this job it is not particularly exciting, rewarding or well-paid work. Accordingly, I imagine that after the fifth hundred child has illegibly trawled out a panicked list all of the instances of light and dark imagery that they can remember from watching Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet an examiner’s sanity must start to wear thin.

‘Please, girls,’ our drama teacher begged as she slumped on the hall floor before us, ‘think of the people who have to read your exam papers.’

The funny thing is I’d never thought of them before, except maybe as a Machiavellian figure lurking in the shadows somewhere. Or even some form of test marking automated machine, the Gradetron 3000 perhaps.

From then on, if I had any spare seconds at my disposal, I used to round off all of my exam papers with a cheery note of thanks and on one occasion an apology. This was totally self-serving and stomach-turningly sycophantic in its way but I hope it helped at least a little bit to break up the monotony of a long day of marking. I did, of course, also strive to make my essays themselves more of a delight to read.

It strikes me that this sort of thinking could well be applied to many facets of our lives. It would be good to remember that our letters of complaint will likely be read by someone unconnected with the initial affront who probably spends a large portion of their day reading hurtful things and being shouted at on the telephone. The CV that you send out will likely not be the only CV the person hiring will look at that day and by the time they get to yours they might be feeling a little under the weather or slightly fed up or it might almost be lunchtime and they forgot to eat a proper breakfast that morning.

The same goes for your covering letter to literary agents.

It is a vast understatement to say that readers at literary agencies, like myself, read a lot of submissions. Furthermore, it is somewhat stating the obvious to assure you that they will all be real life human beings (until we work out the design quirks in the Readatron 3000 that is).

So, be kind to them.

Your covering letter may well be the tenth or twentieth or hundredth covering letter that your chosen agent has read that day. Their eyes might be getting tired, maybe their reading light is on the fritz, it might simply be one of those days that feels like a Thursday but is actually, depressingly, only a Monday. You know how it is.

Make sure that your covering letter is a breath of fresh air.

The best way of doing this is to avoid the covering letter clichés.

But how can you possibly know what these are? You don’t read covering letters all the live long day. How on earth are you to know which perfectly innocent statements are so ingrained in the zeitgeist that literary agents find themselves reading them at least twenty times a day?

Well luckily you are reading this blog and this blog happens to have a helpful list of the top five covering letter clichés to avoid. Which are, in no particular order:

  1. ‘My friends are always telling me that I should write a book’
  2. ‘Ever since I was a little girl/boy I have always wanted to be a writer’
  3. ‘This would make a great film/television series’
  4. ‘I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it’
  5. ‘You probably won’t read it anyway’

Don’t worry if you have already sent out covering letters in the past with any of the statements 1 through to 4 on them. If you have you are certainly not alone and this won’t have worked to your detriment. It is rather that not including them will definitely make your letter feel fresher.

In the interest of keeping your covering letters positive, however, I implore you to avoid statement number 5 at all costs. As I have said readers read a lot of submissions. And a lot of submissions hint at the suspicion that no one is reading them. Ignoring the irony of this, from the point of view of the real human being reading these covering letters it is very disheartening to keep being accused of not reading them.

We understand where this suspicion comes from but it is unwise to waste precious space on your covering letter voicing it. Logically speaking, if you are right then no one will read it anyway but if you are wrong someone will. No good can come of it either way.

I cannot speak for other literary agencies but I can speak for us here at the Darley Anderson Agency when I say that if you submit your work to us we will read it. It wouldn’t make sense if we didn’t. How would we find exciting new writers otherwise?

So, to paraphrase my drama teacher of times gone by: ‘Please, prospective authors, think of the people reading your covering letters’.

Make them exciting, make them sparky, avoid clichés and don’t imply that no one is reading them or you might hurt Readatron’s feelings.

By Vicki Le Feuvre


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Freya Morris says:

    Great post! Thanks for the tips. I was surprised people actually did cliche number 5! Heavens.

  2. Lee Stone says:

    My first radio boss, quite ernestly, told me that I should avoid clichés like the plague.

  3. Jackie Farrell says:

    Great blog – I’m an English teacher and I’ve also had to spend holidays marking exam papers for a bit of extra cash so I know exactly how your drama teacher felt. I’m constantly telling my pupils to remember the examiner, although for me cliches are the least of it. ‘Use full stops,’ I plead with them, ‘ and capital letters. And PARAGRAPH – ‘ you’ve no idea how soul destroying it is to look at your fiftieth exam paper of the day that’s covered in a solid block of A4 writing which is a word salad because there’s no punctuation or paragraphing or any clue as to when someone new is speaking or indeed that the sentences have become a dialogue at all. Exam season is cranking up again. I can feel the nervous tic in my eye starting…

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