There is some advice I give that I believe in fiercely and will defend to the death (ref: Should I Do an Edited Collection?).
And then there is some advice I give that I am very willing to concede may be wrong or at least, less than completely (or universally) right. It seems my advice of last Friday, “How to Write a Journal Article Submission Cover Letter” might fall in the latter category. It’s drawn enough friendly critical commentary on the blog and on an FB thread to suggest that the instructions I give for the letter may be inappropriate for many journal contexts.
There seem to be two critiques: the first is that in many cases no cover letter—or no substantive cover letter—is required at all, and this is an outdated and obsolete practice. The second is that a cover letter may be required, but it should not contain the elements that I suggest, particularly the self-introduction in paragraph one, and the suggested reviewers in paragraph three.
Unless you know for sure that the practices I suggest are the convention for your field, please take the time to investigate their appropriateness for your particular journal article submission. Take particular care with the issue of listing suggested reviewers, which could be very wrong indeed!
The first thing I’d suggest to anyone wondering how to go about submitting a manuscript to a journal is to carefully read the instructions for submission; you may find the clarification you need there on these matters.
The second thing I’d suggest is that you inquire carefully of senior people in your field, and follow field-specific conventions.
The third thing I’d suggest, if you are still anxious, is to send an email to the specific journal editor inquiring as to the need for a cover letter, and clarifying what it should contain.
It is very possible that you need nothing more than a few lines like, “here is a submission; it hasn’t been submitted elsewhere; here is my contact info.”
The responses to the post didn’t come as a huge surprise to me, actually. I was not entirely comfortable with the idea of this post to begin with. I now wish I’d paid more attention to my own instincts.
Over the past couple of years I have been frequently asked for advice on the journal submission cover letter, just as I am constantly asked for advice on the proper form of the post-campus visit thank you note. I have always considered both of these requests to be of a kind—a somewhat strange preoccupation of my readership with an overly nice (as in fastidious or exacting) concern for protocol in minor contexts. I have often wondered about this.
I probably should have prefaced my original post with that observation, that the journal submission cover letter, like the post-campus visit thank you note, is a genre of writing that really ought not to merit the level of anxiety so often directed to it.
Indeed, in response to the email request from my rock-star former client that finally prompted me to write this post, I wrote, “The cover letter? But, it’s such a piddling little thing. Why are you getting hung up on THAT?”
This rock-star client is hung up enough about the cover letter that it is becoming a small obstacle to getting manuscripts submitted.
I think that this may be the crux of the matter. Everyone is anxious about their publishing, just as everyone is anxious about their campus visit stage performances. Where uncertainty in high stakes situations is rife, the anthropologist Malinowski observed, the practice of magic will be found.
We find magic wherever the elements of chance and accident, and the emotional play between hope and fear, have a wide and extensive range. We do not find magic wherever the pursuit is certain, reliable,and well under the control of rational methods (Malinowski, 1954)
I think it’s not far fetched to consider the DEGREE of concern about the journal article cover letter and the post campus visit thank you note that I have observed to be an instance of magical thinking, and a very natural human response to the obscenely high stakes, at the present moment, of publishing and the job search. (My client, it’s worth noting, is at an institution that requires two books and a handful of articles for tenure. Short of magic, how is anyone to accomplish that?)
Let me be clear: I’m not saying that it’s irrational to wonder about the proper form of this writing. I’m saying that the degree of intensity that I observe focused on these two relatively minor genres of writing is out of proportion to their importance.
Some might say that my focus on the minutiae of all job documents has a magical quality to it, but I of course disagree. These documents are cases where good and effective writing has a clear capacity to achieve or advance a desired outcome. But the thank you note and the article cover letter have no impact on outcome—they play no role in the review process that will inevitably ensue.
In any case, I wish I’d heeded my instincts and responded to my client, “Dude, get over yourself and submit the damned manuscripts.” And I wish I’d written a post that raised this meta-question first, before descending into “rules” that could well enable magical thinking. In any case, it’s very likely you need something different than what I wrote in the blog post to accompany your journal article manuscript; I urge you to find out yourself what that is, for your particular field and journal context, and then move on and devote no further attention to this subject.