Skip to Content
How to Write
Red Planet Blues
End of an Era
SFWRITER.COM > How to Write > On Writing: Cover Your ASCII
by Robert J. Sawyer
Cover Your ASCII
Cover Letters and SASEs
Over the last two years, we've talked about how to make your stories better. This time, though, I want to look at the items you mail out with your stories: cover letters and self-addressed stamped envelopes. My wife Carolyn Clink and I recently edited the Canadian SF anthology Tesseracts 6 and we were shocked by how many people didn't know how to handle these two companions to any good submission.
Most editors expect to receive a cover letter with your manuscript. It should be short and sweet:
Dear [editor's name]:
Make sure your address and phone number appear in the letterhead (they should also be on the manuscript). And, for Algis's sake, spell the editor's name correctly (Kristine Kathryn Rusch used to bounce anything from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction that had any of her names wrong). Also specify the publication you are submitting to many editors work on multiple projects simultaneously.
If you have some, list a few publication credits (major non-fiction credits are okay, if you don't have any fiction ones). If you have expertise related to the story, you could mention that, too (an astronomy degree would carry weight if you're submitting to Analog). But don't pad the letter with meaningless credentials: no one cares if you belong to the Canadian Authors Association (which has no membership requirements), that you workshop every week, or that your mother thinks you're the new Isaac C. Heinlein.
If the submission is disposable (meaning all you want back is the editor's reply, not the story), say so here and say it again on the manuscript.
If there's anything else the editor needs to know (for instance, that the story has been previous published, even in another language), say it. Carolyn and I were furious to discover one of the stories we wanted to take was an undisclosed reprint. And don't think that just because the story hasn't been published in English that you don't have to disclose the fact that it's already appeared in French or the converse, of course or that you don't need to mention that the story has already been posted on your World Wide Web home page. You must lay out, in plain language, the entire pedigree of the work you are offering for sale.
Just as important is what's not included. Don't try to synopsize the story. It's an instant turnoff to read things like "`Zombies' is a poignant love triangle between two humans and an alien slime-being . . ." Likewise, don't tell the editor why you wrote the story: "I was inspired to pen this tale after discovering slime between my own toes moving me to ask that classic SF question of `What if?' . . ." None of that matters; the story should stand on its own.
A SASE is a self-addressed stamped envelope. That means the destination address the one that appears on the lower half of the envelope is your own complete address. (We got some SASEs that were addressed to us, instead of the submitter.)
We were stunned to see how many people sent envelopes with no stamps, or sent big SASEs for return of the manuscript, but with insufficient postage. Also, don't send loose stamps: stick the stamps on the envelope yourself.
If you're submitting to a market outside your own country, you need stamps from that country Canadian stamps are no good in the United States, and vice versa. If you can't get hold of foreign stamps, buy International Postal Reply Coupons at the post office, and include one for every thirty grams of material you want mailed back to you.
You must submit a SASE with every story manuscript (although one SASE per small batch of poems is fine). Some writers made multiple submissions to Tesseracts 6 on different dates, but only sent a SASE with the first submission, expecting us to sort through hundreds of envelopes to find theirs (instead, of course, they got left to the very end of the reading process).
Others said they hadn't bothered with a SASE, but told us we could reply by email. That's a no-no: never ask an editor for special treatment. The only way in which you want to stand out from the crowd is by making a proper, professional-looking submission.
According to Maclean's: Canada's Weekly Newsmagazine, "By any reckoning Robert J. Sawyer is among the most successful Canadian authors ever." He has sold 15 novels to major U.S. publishers and received 25 national and international awards for his fiction, including the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Nebula Award for Best Novel of the Year, and the Crime Writers of Canada's Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story of the Year.
Rob has taught creative writing at the University of Toronto, Ryerson Polytechnic University, and the Banff Centre for the Arts.
More Good Reading