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Get it past the editor — A guide to writing a convincing cover letter

Cover letters are among the most controversial aspects of the scientific publishing process. Some people think that cover letters are an archaic remnant that serves no purpose apart from parading status symbols in the form of institutional logos and letters behind the corresponding author’s name. Other people think that the cover letter is the best way for the authors to state the contribution of their paper clearly and succinctly for the editor, who may be too swamped with submissions to read the article in detail. The controversy regarding the purpose of the cover letter is also reflected in the difference in journal policies. Some journals have entirely removed cover letters, others made them optional, and yet others require them as part of the submission. So, if you want it or not, writing a good cover letter is still an essential skill for any academic. Unfortunately, learning this skill is not easy to acquire. Most cover letters are only read by a few people and there is rarely any feedback on the cover letter itself. I was fortunate enough to have excellent mentors with a lot of experience in writing good cover letters and have seen my fair share either as an editor or as a co-author. I decided to share my knowledge to help everyone write a convincing cover letter. This guide will, hopefully, help you to get your paper past the editor’s desk and off to peer review.

The first and most important rule for cover letters is to keep it short. Your cover letter should not exceed one page. Most university or company letterheads already take up a quarter to a third of the page. Then, you want to include a few lines at the bottom for your name. That leaves only space for a couple of paragraphs. Bear that in mind when drafting your letter. We’ll discuss all parts of the cover letter in turn.

Anatomy of a cover letter

The formalities: Letterhead, address, salutation

The top part of the cover letter is straightforward. Use the official letterhead of your university, company, or other institution. That should include fields to fill in your contact information. Typically, that comprises of your name, position, postal address, email address, and sometimes your phone number. You should use your professional details here, i.e. the address of your office, institutional email address, and phone number. If you don’t have an office landline or work mobile phone, I’d suggest to leave the phone number off or use the number of the switchboard.

The next part contains the details of the addressee. I suggest to refer to the addressee by their role here, e.g. The Editor-in-Chief, and then list the name of the journal, Journal of Universal Rejection. In a standard letter, the next lines contain the postal address of the recipient of the letter. Since most submissions are online nowadays, I usually write “via online submission”. On the next line, you start addressing the editor. Make sure to get their name and title right. You should be able to find this information on the journal website. If you had previous contact with an editor, e.g. if it is a re-submission or you emailed the editor beforehand, you should address the letter to that person. If you are submitting a paper for a special issue, check if a guest editor is handling submissions for the special issue and address the letter to the guest editor if that is the case. In the first line, you should list the title of the paper and the journal. For instance, you could write: ‘My co-authors and I are pleased to submit our manuscript entitled “Mysteries of the t-test: Investigation of paranormal distributions” to the Journal of Universal Rejection.

The body: Getting your point across

With the formalities out of the way, we get to the meat of the cover letter. I like to structure my cover letters in three sections. The first section provides a hook by linking your paper to a broader issue or question of interest. It’s often helpful to read about the scope of the journal before starting to write this. The editorial board will have identified which broader purpose the journal serves. For journals with a general readership, these are often topics that relate to broader societal issues, e.g. “the best science for better lives” (The Lancet). For most specialised journals, the topic can be a lot narrower, e.g. “research that has a direct bearing on the understanding or remediation of problems associated with developmental disabilities” (Research in Developmental Disabilities”. You should highlight the connection between your manuscript and the aims of the journal in the first section of the main paragraph. This is your chance to sell the paper. Don’t get bogged down in the minutiae of the research but place the work in a broader context. For a general interest journal, you should relate the manuscript to current societal problems or long-standing substantive debates. For instance, if your paper is about modelling temperature fluctuations using remote sensing data, you could highlight the link to climate change: “Climate change is a major challenge to the environment and human civilisation (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, United Nations). The prediction of change in climate relies on the accurate measurement of climate data. In this paper, we identify a novel method to measure temperature fluctuations through remote sensing.” Do not assume that the relevance of your work is obvious, it helps to draw this out and make the link concrete.
If you are submitting to a more specialised journal, relate your work to ongoing debates in the relevant field. You can still highlight the broader importance of this debate. For instance, imagine you had written a paper that develops a new statistical method to detect outliers. You could start like this: “Across almost all empirical fields, measurements are sometimes contaminated by artefacts or noise. It is common practice to identify these aberrant measurements using statistical procedures. However, this may affect the reliability of the statistical models. In this paper, we propose a new method to detect outliers and show that it outperforms established procedures”.

The second section provides an overview of the paper, i.e. the content, approach, and results. In my view, this section serves to show that integrity of the research. The section should make clear that you can substantiate the claims made in the introductory section. Depending on what is relevant in your field, you can include the sample size, the methodological approach, and/or the analysis procedures. For example, this could read: “In this study, we enrolled 200 participants with a clinical diagnosis of major depressive disorder (MDD) in a double-blind randomised controlled trial (RCT). Following the pre-registered analysis procedures, we identified that X reduced the occurrence of side effects in the treatment group compared to the placebo group (effect size: Cohen’s d=0.2).” Remember to keep this summary very short. Focus only on the main takeaway message of your paper. Don’t worry about any limitations or caveats. You don’t have to mention them here. This letter only serves the purpose of convincing the editor that the manuscript is good enough to be carefully evaluated by external reviewers.

The last paragraph links back to the broader question and makes clear how this paper can contribute to the journal. I usually use a few stock sentences here that relate the manuscript to the readership of the journal: “We anticipate that this manuscript will have a broad appeal to the readers of the Journal, especially …” Replace the eclipses with who you think will be interested in this paper, e.g. scientists working on X, clinicians treating people with Y, policy-makers deciding on Z.

Further formalities

The final part of the cover letter depends a bit on the journal. Some journals require that you include specific general statements. For instance, you may have to confirm that all authors have seen and agreed with the submitted version of the paper. For other journals, you may have to include a statement that this manuscript is not under submission anywhere else. Most journals list these requirements on their webpage, typically under “Guide for Authors”. Read these instructions carefully and add all the required information to your letter. Finally, end your letter for a salutation that suits you. I usually write “I look forward to hearing back from you. Yours … on behalf of all co-authors”

Great, you’re done with your cover letter. Fingers crossed for your submission 🤞

I’m a lecturer in psychology specialised in cognitive neuroscience. My research investigated brain development in young people who struggle in school.

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