No.10: Be helpful
The thing that I feel compelled to start off by moaning about today isn’t directly linked to covering letters but it is very close to them, too often it is pressed right up against them. I’m talking about my personal nemesis. These are the bane of my working life. A scourge on a literary agent’s very existence known as:
The plastic folder.
You know those thin envelopes of translucent plastic? Most of the time they have a strip attached with holes in it so that they can fit into ring binders but not always. Having looked them up on Wikipedia I found out that they are also known as plastic wallets and plastic pockets. Even deciding what to call them is an irritating process.
They seem entirely harmless, helpful even. I know that anyone who has ever included them in their submission has only done so in the interest of making the reading process as painless as possible for us. What bad could possibly come from a little strip of thin plastic, right? But don’t get taken in by the plastic folder propaganda, my friend.
It is when they are introduced to the carefully balanced ecosystem of a submission pile that they turn nasty.
Plastic folders ruin the integrity of any submission pile. They play tricks on them, slipping out from underneath, slowly sliding to the right so that the tower of stories leans nearer and nearer to oblivion, even lying in wait within a small pile to skid out from between the fingers of an unsuspecting agency editor.
They are clever. They are organised. They must be stopped.
And so we seamlessly segue into the final piece of advice I have to impart about how to write your covering letter. If you take nothing else away from these top ten tips (although I hope you do take a few other titbits with you) let it be this:
As much as you can, be as helpful as you can, in any way that you can.
Make the basic information about your submission immediately available to anyone even glancing at your covering letter. Have your name and the title, genre and target audience of your novel right up there at the top either in your very first paragraph or right underneath your elevator pitch (if you have decided to take my advice on that front).
Something like this would be great:
My name is Hugh Jass and I am submitting a fantasy novel aimed at the young adult market entitled THE UNFORTUNATE NAMES PARENTS GIVE THEIR CHILDREN.
For one thing, an agent could pick that covering letter up and immediately recognise that it is a submission. This may sound like a very simple distinction but when you are dealing with hundreds of submissions at a time a large portion of your week can end up being spent just on working out whether a letter or an email is a submission or not.
Another deceptively simple piece of advice that I can offer to make your covering letters as helpful as possible would be to make it easy to read.
Handwritten letters do bring a certain personal touch, granted, but the other thing they often bring to the table is being at best a challenge to decipher, at worst completely illegible.
Similarly, using a tiny and/or confusing font won’t help your would-be agent. Neither will overly bright coloured paper/backgrounds, using a font colour that is difficult to see or any formatting in an email that might go wrong (such as pictures that jump in front of the text or gif logos that have a tendency to stop the email from opening successfully).
While we’re on the subject of formatting, consider how the layout of your covering letter can help the whole reading process run smoothly. Simply using the traditional structure of a letter (whether you are sending your submission by post or email) is a world of helpful.
Name, address, phone number and email address up in the right-hand corner, everything else neatly spaced along the left-hand side of the page beneath a ‘Dear So-and-so’ and above a nice sign off ending with your name written out in full once more for posterity. Beautiful.
Including that inverted section in the right-hand corner with your contact details is particularly helpful too. Your contact details are the thing you want your chosen agent to be looking for in a heady haze of excitement – make sure they can find them immediately.
Ideally, you want to make it as easy as possible for an agent to get in touch with you, giving them as many options of how they can contact you as possible. Just in case.
Of course, in the body of the letter you can put your paragraphs in any order you think is best. Still, try as much as possible to make each point naturally move into the next, if only to show off your writing skills. Particularly avoid jumping about thematically between personal information and talking about your book only because this can be confusing and does not present the best impression of your writing abilities.
Last of all, keep it compact. If you do have to go over to the second page it is not the end of the world but a covering letter that stays under one page always looks better (especially in postal submissions) and is generally about the right length in most situations. Besides this, it is helpful too if your covering letter gets to the point quickly and doesn’t bury important information. Not to mention that keeping your covering letter compact and focused (all together now) shows off your writing skills.
And showing off your talent as a writer is what your whole submission is really all about.
Well, there we have it then.
In the interest of being helpful, here’s a summary of Our Top Ten Tips for Writing a Tip Top Covering Letter –
1. Don’t self-deprecate – be positive and endlessly enthusiastic about your work
2. Include one or two concise paragraphs about yourself, leading with any writing-specific information and letting them know how fantastic you are in general
3. Open with an elevator pitch of your story to grab the agent’s attention. Make your work the focus of your covering letter
4. Address your covering letter to your hand-picked agent personally
5. Avoid email addresses and formatting choices that make it look like you aren’t really taking this all that seriously
6. Avoid covering letter clichés like the plague
7. Proofread until the letters start jumping around the page taking turns to dance with each other
8. Save discussing your pseudonym ideas and marketing vision for another day
9. Only include reader feedback if it is positive and comes from a source that the agent can assign weight to
10. Do everything you can to make reading your covering letter a smooth ride for your chosen agent
Do all this and your covering letter should act as the perfect virtual handshake to your future agent.
Oh and just for me, please don’t send your covering letter inside a plastic folder if you can possibly avoid it. The plastic folders are not on your side. But we are.
By Vicki Le Feuvre