Of Cover Letters and Magic (A Follow-up Post)

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the first is that in many cases no cover letter—or no substantive cover letter—is required at all, and this is an outdated and obsolete practice.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.

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Of Cover Letters and Magic (A Follow-up Post) — 13 Comments

  1. Pingback: How To Write a Journal Article Submission Cover Letter | The Professor Is In

  2. Nice come back! Indeed magical thinking might play a part. As I said, I loose no sleep over cover letters, preferring to send an extended abstract, as a teaser if you will. On the other hand, I would not dream to go to a job interview without my little rubber green crocodile (not that it has helped thus far – maybe I should not put it on the desk – just kidding).

  3. The way I see it: when people are faced with a mixture of big, uncontrollable variables (will the selection committee offer me a job?) and small, controllable variables (how should I phrase my Thank You email?), the brain finds it easiest to grasp and process the small controllables. With things like a campus visit and manuscript submission the bulk of the judgement feels out of our control…fine-tuning a cover letter gives the submissee something to control.

    From personal experience I would argue that obsessing over the little things is preferable to the alternative: becoming so paralysed by the enormity of the big uncontrollable variables that you forget to take care of the little things. For instance, during the last grad school application cycle I was so caught up in waiting to hear back from a couple of professors (who would ultimately reject my PhD application) that I didn’t email enquires to anywhere else on my Plan B list, or even Google Search alternative schools until it was too late.

    Magic serves a useful purpose.

  4. I agree. I’m the associate editor of a major area studies journal, and we usually don’t even read cover letters when they’re included. Sometimes the admin processing the submissions forgets to even give them to us. The one thing that can be helpful, however, is if you have 1-3 (not more than that!) scholars whom you would *not* like to review your manuscript, that is a fine thing to tell us. No need to explain why you don’t want them. This is much better than telling us who you want to review your ms, which might well have the opposite of its intended effect. The best way to influence who reviews your article is to mention and cite those scholars in the text of the article, making it obvious that they are experts in the scholarly area in question. (Don’t criticize them and don’t heap disproportionate praise on them either; both are likely to get them scratched from the potential reviewer list.)

    Other than that, nothing you say in a cover letter will have any effect on whether your article is sent out for review, and obviously will not affect the review process itself since peer reviewers never see cover letters.

  5. Thank you both for posting some “rules” and for attempting to put the cover letter into its proper perspective. I found your post because the journal to which I want to submit an article requires a cover letter, and so I googled yet another topic which is foreign territory to a young academic. As long as secrecy is the prevailing mode of operation in academe, fear and uncertainty will follow. Thanks for using your blog to dispel some of the myths that can paralyze us with self-doubt!

  6. Pingback: Publishing your first academic article | Tracy Perkins

  7. While not strictly required, a cover letter is your chance to tell me why I should even send your manuscript to reviewers. What is your message? Why is it important? I have 10 to 20 minutes to scan your manuscript. Tell me what I should look for!

    BTW “Read the Instructions for Authors” is absolutely great advice!

  8. Pingback: A Proper Writer | Just words …

  9. Thanks for this post (and another one before — on the topic of ‘Cover Letters’). I’m a newbie in the world of publishing and in need of finding general wordings that can be used in a cover letter. I found your sharing informative and just as what I need. My personal humble opinion about cover letter is that it is a form of saying friendly ‘hi’ in official writing (particularly on publishing). And I love the word of Malinowski (1954) as you shared about magic. I feel instantly connected with those.

  10. Thanks for the wonderful blog. In some areas of science and engineering, the competition to get papers into top journals is very fierce.

    The editors are sometimes overwhelmed with a large number of good submissions and cannot possibly send them all out for review. In these cases, the cover letter is critical and needs to sell your manuscript and convince the editor as to why he/she needs to pick your paper to be reviewed as compared to the other good ones.

  11. I found your original article to be one of the most useful and well written on the topic. Your detractors should be thankful for a well-articulated point of view other than their own.

    “Never before have so many fought so hard, for so little”
    me, RE academic recognition at on of my alma maters

  12. Pingback: Social Science Software » Blog Archive Cover letter und Reviewer vorschlagen - aber wie?

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