Writing a cover letter always makes me think of speed dating. Your chances of getting a date with the attractive person sitting opposite you depend (sadly) on crucial first impressions. In much the same way, your cover letter is your first and possibly only chance to show the journal editor your manuscript’s worth.
Journal editors deal with hundreds of submissions a year and it is your cover letter – not your manuscript – that they will read first. Put yourself in their shoes; would you read a manuscript if the accompanying cover letter was poorly written, badly structured, and missing essential information? No more than you would accept a date from someone who laughs loudly at their own jokes and calls you ‘sweet-cheeks’.
Your cover letter will determine whether the editor sends your manuscript out for peer review or not. Many scientists underestimate its importance, but a winning cover letter will create the great first impression that your manuscript deserves. In this post, I explain how to write a cover letter that will increase your manuscript’s chances of publication (unfortunately, there is nothing in here that will help you succeed at speed dating).
First things first. . .
First (and most important) of all, check the journal’s instructions and follow them. Most journals have specific requirements for the cover letter. Make sure you prioritize this information (even over the useful advice you read in this article). If you are not vigilant about the details in your cover letter, the editor may question the quality of your research.
Cover letters are usually submitted online. Nevertheless, you should format your cover letter like any other formal business letter. Include your name, contact information, and affiliation(s) – even if this information is already in your submission form. And take a few minutes to find out the editor’s name from the Editorial Board page on the journal’s website. Think about it. You would much rather be addressed by your name than ‘Dear Researcher’, wouldn’t you? But don’t worry, if this information is not available, using ‘Dear Editor’ won’t get your manuscript rejected.
Build the body
Start the body of your cover letter with the title of your manuscript and what type of article it is. For example:
‘Please find attached our manuscript, entitled (insert manuscript title), which we would like to submit as a/an (insert type of article, e.g. original research article, case report, literature review) to (insert journal name).'
Make sure you check which types of article your chosen journal publishes. It makes no sense to submit a case report to a journal that only publishes original research articles and literature reviews.
In the next paragraph, explain why you did the work. What important gap in the current knowledge does your research address, or what existing findings does your study build on? Then describe your principal findings and what they bring to your field. Try to avoid too much technical detail; remember your job here is to give an enticing overview of your work, not bog the editor down with detail.
Emphasize the importance of your results but do not exaggerate; make sure your statements are supported by your data. Another tip: use intensifiers sparingly to avoid sounding desperate (e.g. avoid phrases like our extremely interesting findings, our very unique approach, our exceptionally significant data). And do not copy and paste from your manuscript when describing your rationale and results; write new sentences with the journal’s aims and scope in mind.
A good fit?
In the next paragraph, explain why your paper fits to the chosen journal. Read the journal’s aims and scope carefully; if your study addresses the journal’s interests, then mention this in your cover letter. You can also look through the journal’s archives and see whether they have published papers with a similar focus to your own. If they have, then include this in your cover letter. Explain why your manuscript will appeal to the journal’s readers. Tell the editor why they should publish your work in their journal.
Sign off. . .
Most journals will ask you to include statements that confirm your manuscript is your original work and has not been submitted/accepted for publication elsewhere. You should also declare any conflicts of interest and confirm that all authors have contributed to and approved submission of the final manuscript.
The journal may ask you to suggest potential reviewers. This is your chance to help the editor speed up the peer review process. You should suggest reviewers who are experts in your particular field and not just your friends and collaborators. Be sure to explain why the reviewers you have suggested are suitable.
Finish by thanking the editor for his/her consideration. Sign off with ‘Yours sincerely’ (if you know the editor’s name) or ‘Yours faithfully’ (if you have used ‘Dear Editor’). And don’t forget to give the address for correspondence.
Create an impact
A cover letter that is well-written and easy to read will speak wonders for your manuscript. To achieve this, keep it concise (try to limit your letter to one page). Delete any information that does not explain the rationale, findings, or conclusions of your study. Read my previous post for tips on how to cut out clutter and give your letter extra impact.
Believe me, it is well worth investing effort in your cover letter. Just like explaining why your jokes are funny isn’t going to help you win the date of your dreams, submitting your manuscript with a substandard cover letter isn’t going to help you publish your paper.
A good first impression will take you far. . .
Claire Bacon is a former research scientist with professional qualifications in copy editing and medical editing. She edits manuscripts for non-native English-speaking scientists and works as a copy editor for a biomedical journal.