Writing Your First Covering Letter to an Acquisitions Editor
It is reasonable to suppose that the grand majority of academic and scientific authors believe the work they submit to scholarly journals and presses for potential publication is eminently publishable. If a manuscript is well written and presents sound scholarship of the kind normally published by the journal or press, it does indeed have a good chance of attracting interest, receiving a fair assessment and perhaps even earning successful publication. However, there is a great deal of scholarly material sent to publishers each day, and it is wise to give your manuscript every chance of standing out as exceptional. A covering letter that introduces the manuscript to the publisher can achieve this, and it can also focus the eyes of acquisitions proofreaders and possibly peer reviewers in ways that enable full appreciation of your work.
With online submission being the norm among many publishers these days, covering letters are often no longer necessary, but in some cases they still are and in most cases a covering letter can be included even if one is not requested or strictly necessary. The potential for producing an extremely positive effect via a covering letter easily outbalances the ease offered by neglecting to include one, and if you take the time and effort to compose your letter with great care in terms of both content and writing style, it is highly unlikely that it will produce a negative effect.
In fact, a beautifully written covering letter serves as an excellent introduction to your work as a scholar, and this is most important when you have not yet had your academic or scientific writing published (though this fact should certainly not serve as discouragement for those who have already successfully published their writing). A covering letter is a bite-size sample of your writing. If it is clear and correct and eloquent, it suggests that your manuscript will be as well and thus encourages readers to begin their textual journey through your research with an optimistic outlook. Do be sure that your manuscript lives up to the promise!
A covering letter is also a sample of your research and scholarly thinking. By informing the acquisitions editor about what is interesting, innovative, surprising, exciting, beneficial and otherwise valuable about your research, you have the opportunity not only to connect your work with the priorities of the publisher you are targeting, but also to paint a brief picture of your concerns, approaches and perspectives. Your status as a unique academic or scientist with a great deal to contribute is an important part of being a successful scholarly author. A good covering letter offers both you and your work a brief moment on stage, and, like a Shakespearean prologue, it should give your audience a great deal to think about.
It is obvious, then, that you need to blow your own horn and flaunt your own skills a little as you draft your covering letter and this can be challenging territory. You must sound confident in the validity and value of your work as well as its appropriateness for the publisher you have chosen. Avoid generalisations that can come across as arrogance without solid evidence to back them up, and focus instead on specifics that provide the reasons for your confidence. In other words, do not simply tell the editor how wonderful your paper is; instead write something like ‘My approach is innovative because…’ or ‘My findings are especially valuable because…’ and follow with the specific reason.
Finally, be selective. There may be a long list of things you would like to say about your work, but an ideal covering letter is concise and should not glut the reader with information. Choose one or two aspects of your work that you think most innovative or groundbreaking and perhaps one or two reasons why your work is perfect for the publisher you are approaching, and then make the most of them. These will serve as effective appetisers for the main meal – the manuscript you are hoping to publish – and inspire that acquisitions editor to continue reading.
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If you are in the process of preparing an article for an academic or scientific journal, or planning one for the near future, you may well be interested in a new book, Guide to Journal Publication, which is available on our Tips and Advice on Publishing Research in Journals website.