In You We Trust

November 28, 2017 § 9 Comments


Picture of Meryl Streep as a fashion magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada

…maybe just stop talking.

We’re settled into our seats, ready to watch Meryl Streep perform in the new musical adaptation of Gone Girl (“Gone!”). We’re leafing through Playbill, counting up Oscar nominations, when suddenly Ms. Streep steps out in front of the curtain to address the audience.

“Hi everyone, I’m really excited you’re here for this show, based on the book about a woman who fakes her own disappearance and sets her husband up for a murder rap. I hope you’ll especially enjoy the scene where I write all the journal entries at the same time with different pens.”

Wait, what?

Or she says, “In rehearsals for this show, I worked on my high E notes with a noted vocal coach at Julliard, maybe you’ve heard of him?”

Um, no.

We’re already here, Meryl. We’re ready to watch. We trust you to deliver. Just let us watch you–don’t tell us the story you’re about to tell us. And if it turns out the show isn’t to our taste, your pre-show explanation won’t fix that.

Reading submissions is a lot like being in that audience. Around the Brevity Podcast house, we’re settling in with pages of Submittable entries for the One-Minute Memoir episode. Each essay is the curtain going up on a show we’ve never seen before, enjoying how much humor, sadness, quirkiness, reflection, action, and adventure can be packed into under 150 words, sometimes many fewer than that. There are pieces totally unique in content, and others with universal situations but new approaches. Every author has something truly, beautifully theirs…and some of them tell us about it in advance.

Cover letters everywhere range from a single sentence of author bio to a full page of credits, context, and background information, and every variation in between. Sometimes, authors get nervous that the editors won’t get it. Or they’re really excited about their time working with a prestigious teacher. Maybe they feel like they don’t have enough publication credits, and explaining the story fills up that space. Or there’s a backstory that’s totally amazing.

These things don’t suck, but they’re not helping your submission. I don’t actively read the cover letter until I’ve read the essay–though I end up seeing some of what Submittable displays before clicking through to the submitted piece. Most editors want to come to your words as readers do: a fresh impression on the page. They don’t get to sit down and explain to subscribers what they meant when they picked that piece, why they think it’s great. As authors, we rarely get to discuss why or how we came to write something unless we’re talking about it with our friends or being interviewed. But that’s bonus material for the true fans, not a base to start from with first-time readers. Don’t give away the game.

For example, when submitting your terrific flash essay about knitting with a women’s circle in Guangzhou:

This essay focuses on the time I gave birth in China surrounded by my knitting class.

I wanted to tell the stories of the amazing grandmothers I met while doing handicrafts in China. They all had children who had emigrated, and I saw how conflicted they felt.

Nope.

For the purposes of submission, one sentence maximum about the circumstances directly affecting the writing (not the story).

I wrote this during my missionary work in China.

I’m a professional knitting teacher.

Will detailing parts of your story get you rejected out of hand? Not by us. In the long run, this isn’t a huge issue. For most journals, it doesn’t really matter what you write in that space–at this point in the process, they’re interested in the story and the writing. Explaining neither fixes nor destroys a submission. So don’t sweat it if you’ve fallen into this category before. Just stop doing it.

Reading your story is more powerful than reading about your story. Let us be surprised and delighted and astounded–the way we want our audience to be when they get to read your work.

 

Edited to add: Aerogramme offers some more terrific cover letter advice from Tahoma Review Prose Editor Yi Shun Lai.

_____________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her travel-adventure-writing newsletter can show up twice monthly in your inbox, if that’s not telling too much.

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§ 9 Responses to In You We Trust

  • equipsblog says:

    This is a great way to illustrate the point. I’m going to share this with my read and critique group.

  • Excellent. Many years ago an editor warned never to try explaining work what should be explaining itself, but this is so much better—a vivid and useful reminder.

  • V.J. Knutson says:

    Such good advice. I’m passing it on.

  • Joanne says:

    Great example…sharing with my writing group.

  • herheadache says:

    Reblogged this on Her Headache and commented:
    Some excellent advice in this one. It’s all useful for me, as I work on one of my final submission goals for a truly special year in my writing journey. Thanks Allison. Back to work on telling my story through the art of brevity of the written word.

  • I really appreciated this flash of TRUTH. I’ve edited and read for a number of journals, and I rarely read the cover letters except when something from them stands out in my eye while I wait to Submittable to go to the next page. Mostly it’s because I don’t want the bio to sway how I read a submission. As in, “Oh look! This writer has been published in Brevity! This has got to be a good piece!” Which isn’t true. Excellent writers write terribly all the time–that’s just not the stuff we see.

    Anyway, I appreciated reading about your thoughts on cover letters.

    Because sharing is caring, here are some more pretty funny/good points about cover letters:

    http://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/75-FE-TheSubmission-CoverLetters.html

    Thanks for your words!
    -Chelsey

    • I enjoyed your link very much. I always check the masthead, but I have avoided addressing the editor because most often I knew I needed to get past a reader before I got to an editor. I guess maybe I should rethink my salutation. (Especially when an editor has addressed me by name in the past.)

      • Thanks for reading! True story about getting past a reader before you get to the editor. I feel like it just shows a little head nod of appreciation, though, regardless if the editor never actually sees it…because if s/he does see it, then score! 🙂

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