How to write a great cover letter

You have just written a great manuscript. You’ve addressed many unanswered questions and have bridged large gaps in previously missing knowledge in your field. Now you have to publish it! Even though the quality of your work should speak for itself, no one is going to consider your manuscript for publication if you write a bad cover letter to the editor of the journal.

A great cover letter matters because it is your first (and best) opportunity to convince a journal that your manuscript is worth publishing. You want the editor to think ‘Now, this I want to read!’

Among an editor’s jobs is producing content for a journal that your colleagues are going to want to cite in their own articles. More readers and citations lead to better impact factors for the journal, and every editor wants to increase their impact factor. Therefore, the most important message your cover letter can deliver is that your article is a valuable contribution to the field that journal readers are going to want to cite.

What to include in the cover letter

The trick to writing an excellent cover letter is that you must make a convincing sales pitch in an admittedly dull format. All cover letters must include more or less the same boilerplate information interspersed with elements of that ‘wow factor’ that will grab the editor’s attention.

creating a letter

Even though the quality of your work should speak for itself, no one is going to consider your manuscript for publication if you write a bad cover letter.

Do not underestimate the power of a letterhead. If your cover letter is written on a sharp-looking, professionally formatted letterhead, the contents of that letter are already going to be taken more seriously by the editor, even if your institution is not well known. Microsoft Word allows the easy creation of letterheads, including images.

Beneath your letterhead, address the letter to the editor. Make sure you know his or her correct name, including professional designations (e.g., MD, PhD) and official title (e.g., Editor-in-Chief, section editor, co-chair). Include the name of the journal in italics. Here’s an example.

Josephine Mittelschmerz, MD, PhD
The Journal of Menstrual Disorders

All this information is usually available on the ‘instructions to authors’ page on the journal’s website.

The first sentence is one of those boilerplate phrases that every editor is expecting to read. You must tell the editor what kind of article you are submitting and its title.

Dear Dr. Mittelschmerz,

On behalf of my co-authors, I would like to submit an original article entitled ‘The effects of vitamin D supplementation on peri-menopausal women with Boney–Maroney syndrome’ for publication in the Journal of Menstrual Disorders.

Be sure to italicise the journal name here as well. At the end of the first paragraph, list your co-authors with their professional designations.

Now here is where you must impress the editor. You must tell them three things:
• What kind of study you carried out
• What question(s) the study answers
• How your study adds to the body of the literature or bridges knowledge gaps

For example:

What kind of study you carried out: ‘This was a prospective, randomised, double-blind placebo-controlled trial of vitamin D in 250,000 peri-menopausal women with established diagnoses of Boney–Maroney syndrome.’
What question(s) the study answers: ‘The study was designed to determine whether vitamin D supplementation normalises one of the diagnostic features of Boney–Maroney syndrome: elevated C-reactive protein levels.’
How the study adds to the body of the literature: ‘To the best of our knowledge, the effects of vitamin D supplementation on C-reactive protein levels in patients with Boney–Maroney syndrome has never been studied previously.’

Be sure to mention why your article is interesting to the journal’s readers: ‘We believe this study will help gynaecologists and generalists alter the management of their patients with Boney–Maroney syndrome.’

Closing your letter

The last part of the letter must mention that you have not submitted your article, in whole or in part, to any other journal and that you will not do so until receiving a decision from the editor you are addressing. You should also mention that all authors have agreed to submit the article as currently written.

Sign off the letter and avoid being overly fawning. Keep it short and sweet: ‘Thank you for your attention. I look forward to hearing from you soon.’

Finally …

When in doubt about what to include in the cover letter, consult the ‘instructions to authors’ page on the journal’s website. For example, they may ask you to declare conflicts of interest, if any, as you might have done in the manuscript. They may also ask you to name potential referees for your article.

Finally, proofread your letter and/or have a co-author proofread it. Or, if you’ve engaged an editing service, cover letter writing and editing may be included to really maximise your opportunity of making an impact with the journal editor.

Pay as much attention to writing your cover letter as you did to writing the manuscript. If you don’t, there’s a chance that no one will ever read about the excellent work you’ve done.

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