Does your cover letter provide an overall picture or a jumble of pieces?

Recapping from our previous post on what not to include in cover letters, there was a list of items that that your cover letter SHOULD include:

  • an indication that you are familiar with the content that the journal typically publishes
  • a BRIEF, DIRECT description of where the field, which fits the journal, stands (1 paragraph MAX)
  • an issue or hole in the field (1 sentence)
  • how your research was designed to fill that hole (1 paragraph MAX, combined with research conclusions)
  • a BRIEF description of your research conclusions OR relevant techniques used. This is solely to indicate your suitability for their journal and what you write depends on the type of content they are seeking (1 paragraph MAX, combined with paragraph on research design)
  • an explanation of exactly why your content fits with what the journal typically offers (1 paragraph, combined with readership below)
  • an explanation of how/why your research will interest the readership of that journal (1 FULL paragraph…yes really.)

Notice that my above list includes detailed descriptions of how long each section of the cover letter needs to be. Yes, if you follow my suggestions, your cover letter will be about three full paragraphs. No, you absolutely cannot “tweak” the suggestions above and make 2.9 of them about your research and add a stock line that mentions the journal name as a reason why it should be considered for publication.

You know the line:

“We feel that our manuscript will be a good fit for the readership of XXX journal.”


At this point, you need to sell your manuscript to the editor, not provide enough details to pass a peer-review, and anything more than a brief and concise summary of your results is way too much. In fact, the point is to entice the editor to open the manuscript – giving a brief “teaser” is a more effective strategy.

The over-providing of facts without context is a common problem in science. We researchers operate on data points and concrete details, and it feels more “legit” to throw as many facts as possible at someone to help them see your point.

Unfortunately, to someone who has to sort through thousands of article submissions a year to judge which are worthy for inclusion, that often feels like you are handing them this:

What reading a cover letter feels like to an editor when its mostly research results.

Is your editor going to put together that puzzle to see the big picture of your research and how it fits into their journal? Oh, maybe. If they are having a slow day, they might. Or if they haven’t had too many great submissions lately, sure.

But what if they just had a couple FANTASTIC papers accepted? Are they going to be so inclined to assemble your puzzle? What if they are tired that day and don’t feel like putting together a puzzle? What if someone walks into their office and distracts them partway through your puzzle? Are they going to pick it up again?

Would you?

I’m going to guess not.

Don’t let the fate of your manuscript rest on how recently your editor refreshed their coffee before reading your cover letter.

By limiting the space taken by your research to one paragraph, you can still give the editor enough facts to make an informed decision and, more importantly, will have the space to show the editor exactly how your manuscript fits into the puzzle that is their journal’s wants and desires.

So, don’t think of the last suggested paragraph of your cover letter as taking up valuable space you could be using to squeeze in more facts. This paragraph is actually where you are assembling the puzzle for your editor. Instead of giving them the jumble of pieces, your last paragraph is making sure you give them something that looks much more like this:

The last paragraph of your cover letter is designed to assemble the puzzle for the editor to help them see the bigger picture.

Isn’t that a much more appealing scenario for your editor?

Ok, so now we know that we want to allow the editor to see the overall picture, but how do we do that in a cover letter? What important things need to be included for this to happen?

First, you need to know the journal you are applying to and why your paper fits that journal. How do you learn this?

Let’s use Nature Methods as an example journal. First, you should always have some idea about the types of content that a journal publishes based on reading other papers from that journal. To make sure you are as specific as you can, though, when writing your cover letter, first google Nature Methods:

The google search screen gives you the “about the journal” option you need.

Right on the Google search screen, you can see a section titled “About the Journal”, which will give you the aims and scope of the published journal content. The Aims and Scope section of each journal is your golden ticket, because it tells you in no uncertain terms exactly how to focus your cover letter. From this, you can see exactly what to highlight in your paper based on what the journal is looking for and the points you should make sure stand out to your editor. Have a look:

Cover letter gold! This tells you exactly what to highlight in your cover letter!

The highlighted points here are the exact things you want to discuss about your paper. Use your last paragraph, where you tie your research into the desired journal, to give examples of each of these points to indicate exactly how your research is what the journal is looking for.

Nature Methods is actively looking for new chemical techniques that can enhance biological study. Do you have one of those? If so, make sure you say exactly that in your cover letter. Do you describe a method, give its validation, and use this method to answer an important biological question? Tell the editor that all of those things are in your paper, and indicate what biological question you answered (hint – if you DIDN’T do that, though, why are you trying for Nature Methods?). Is your work immediately applicable? If so, highlight that and provide evidence. Would it be useful in industry as well as academia? Tell the editor that and tell them why you can appeal to both audiences.

Obviously it goes without saying that your article does have to fit the journal.

But even an article that fits a journal can be overlooked by an editor if they cannot immediately see how the puzzle fits together. Your cover letter should show the editor that what you are giving them is exactly what they want so that they don’t have to think about it and possibly overlook something important.

Don’t make them guess! Give them a better picture of your research’s place in their journal than a jumble of puzzle pieces, and you’ll have a more convincing application to their journal.

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