Here’s a little secret. At any given week of the year, I usually have poetry or critical essays in limbo at a dozen or so academic literary journals and magazines, waiting to be rejected or accepted. And, as well all know, writers recieve far more rejections than acceptances. This is all part of being a working writer. However, there are things that can be done to ensure your work recieves careful consideration by the editors and is not just disregarded in the large slush pile. First of all, the work has to count, obviously. It should be polished and revised. Second, there is the issue of the cover letter and writing a good cover letter. There are ways to ensure you’re not just sending the same letter off to every magazine and journal.
Kelly Davio, poetry editor for Tahoma Literary Review, has some excellent advice about what she looks for in cover letters, and she makes some points that I’ve never considered as a writer. In a blog post, she notes that editors do indeed look at the biographical information of the writer to ensure they have a diverse range of voices each issue. So yes, biographical information in a cover letter counts. For instance, if you’ve worked a number of odd jobs and you’re not an academic, that may be something to put in a cover letter, since most literary journals recieve hundreds and hundreds of submissions from M.F.A. students or tenure-track poetry professors.
She also notes that it’s important to reference how you heard of the journal. This so something I always try to do. Even if I heard of the journal on Facebook or at a conference and have never met the editors, I still mention how I learned of the publication. It’s even better, however, to actually buy an issue to get a better sense of what they publish. Then you can point to a particular writer or work they’ve published that you like.
Finally, like any cover letter, be brief and to-the-point, and don’t assume that prior accomplishments mean the editors will definitely publish your work.