This is more a list of don’ts than dos; there’s a serious blog post/editorial that needs to be written about how to write an effective cover letter, but for now, here’s a quick checklist for you all…
1. Send in a cover letter with your submission explaining why it’s as awesome as you think it is and why I should come to the same conclusion. It always puzzles me when there is no cover letter… this is your 10 minutes alone in a room with the editor, making your case for why she/he should care about the work.
2. This means not just copying the abstract of your paper and dropping it word-for-word into the cover letter. I’ll read the abstract when I get to the paper.
3. Ditto for the introduction paragraph(s) from the paper – these don’t belong in the cover letter either.
4. Ditto for the concluding paragraph(s) from the paper – you get the picture by now.
5. When your cover letter launches into the carefully reasoned explanation of why This Particular Journal is the most suitable forum for the publication of your paper, make sure the journal you’re actually submitting to is This Particular Journal otherwise you might look a bit silly. No editor should reject a manuscript based on an author revealing the Journal That Already Rejected My Paper in the cover letter, but you know what, it’s just polite to update your cover letter and it means that you don’t get the editor worrying about how closely you’ve been paying attention to the paper and the science itself (not just the cover letter).
6. Ditto the cover letter date. Why is the cover letter dated 5 weeks ago? Huh, weird.
7. If you’re going to refer to the editor of the journal by name in your cover letter, make sure you’ve got the correct editor name/journal name/journal office address combo.
8. Probably best to spend more time on why your work is so great than on why everyone else’s work in this area sucks.
9. If you’re going to give a list of particular sub-disciplines in your field where you think people will find your paper interesting (this seems to happen in chemistry a fair bit), explain *why* you think they will find the work interesting. It’s useless otherwise.
10. Suggest the names (and contact details) of experts who you think would be able to provide an impartial evaluation of the research described in your manuscript. Editors will almost certainly not choose a group of referees (there must be a better collective noun for ‘referees’ than ‘group’ – suggestions welcome in the comments) just from your suggestions, but they do provide a helpful starting point – it also makes it clear to the editor that you are aware of the community that is working in the areas of research described in your paper. Some journals allow you to name referees/nemeses who you’d rather we didn’t send your precious bundle of joy to – if this list gets too long or excludes everyone else who works in the same area, however, it tends to activate the big flashing red light (with really loud siren) installed in most editorial offices*. *Not really, but you get the point I hope.
BONUS: You remembered to update your cover letter and make sure it matches the journal that you are *now* submitting to. Did you update the supplementary information statement? You know, the one that often mentions a particular journal.
(UPDATED later in the day this entry was first posted to add a few more points following some Twitter conversation – also, for some great (tongue-in-cheek) examples of what not to do, look at #overlyhonestcoverletters!)
11. Do not leverage buzzwords, and avoid clichés like the plague. Your work is a paradigm shift? Really? You’ve shifted paradigms? (Thanks to @jermynation for reminding me about this one on Twitter). And unless you’re actually talking about *the* Holy Grail (which I doubt you are), don’t go there (sub req’d).
12. Again, thanks to @jermynation for pointing out that celebrity endorsements from Professor Big Shot aren’t necessary in cover letters either. If Prof. Big Shot has told you that your work is amazing (and they really meant it), just keep your fingers crossed that the stars align and we send it to them to review.