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Marc Abernathy | Five mistakes most authors make when writing cover letters to academic journals—and how you can avoid them*
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Five mistakes most authors make when writing cover letters to academic journals—and how you can avoid them*

Many submitted papers never get past the editor and sent out for review. Without a solid, powerful cover letter, the weeks, months, or even years you have spent writing, revising, and preparing your research paper might not be enough to nudge your paper past the journal editor’s desk and onto the reviewers. This article gives you five valuable tips for using your cover letter to increase your chances of getting published.

  1. A direct and unexpected start
  2. Why your paper? Why this journal?
  3. Cohesion, integration, and summary
  4. Visual appeal
  5. From gatekeeper to ally

*This article is the first of a two-part “Better letters” series. This article focuses on cover letters for initial submissions to academic journals. The second article will focus on response letters for revised papers being resubmitted.

 

  1. Position your paper with a direct and unexpected first sentence

“How do organizational actors deal with paradoxes?” Opening with a direct and unexpected first sentence (or question) like this can immediately capture attention instead of boring a busy and distracted editor with the recycled, overused, and formulaic “We hereby submit our paper, [‘Title of paper’], for review in [Name of Journal].” A direct and unexpected first sentence positions your paper from the start and launches you directly into a clear articulation of why your paper is worth publishing. It helps editors see why your paper deserves to be sent out for review, providing the momentum that will keep them reading all the way to the complementary close (“Yours sincerely,”).

 

Instead of this first sentence… …try this
“Please find attached an electronic version of the paper entitled…which we would like to submit to…” “Is it better for family-firm successors to learn within the firm or outside of it? Until now, this question…”
“We are writing to submit our manuscript…and kindly ask you to consider it for possible publication in…” “Our discrete-choice experiment shows that the broader socio-cultural context shapes employees’ assessments of retail jobs.”
“Attached, please find our manuscript…which we hereby submit for consideration in…” “The behavioral theory of the firm (BTOF) cannot currently predict change in temporary organizations…”

 

  1. Why your paper? why this journal?

Think like your editor. From a first sentence that catapults your arguments forward, move on to why your paper should be published in your target journal. Journal editors will be looking for a clear answer to this question as they scan your letter. The “Aims and Scope” section of the Journal of Management, for example, says that it “welcomes empirical and theoretical articles dealing with micro, meso, and macro workplace phenomena.” How does your paper fit within the scope and directly further those aims? How might researchers and practitioners reading this journal interpret, cite, and apply your paper once it is published? “If our paper is published in Journal of Management, organizational theorists might cite our paper for…” Browse past journal issues and cite other papers from the journal, annotating and explaining how your paper fits, complements, supports, or contradicts past research. Identify who on the editorial board might be a good reviewer. Knowing a journal well helps you clearly articulate why your paper is a match for it and show the editors that you are not just shopping your manuscript around.

 

  1. Highlight the cohesion, integrate, and summarize

With this clear positioning done, check that

 

  • your cover letter complements, highlights, and expands on your abstract
  • your title matches and supports your abstract
  • the first pages of the introduction fit with both the title and abstract

 

Editors will likely scan these elements first, toggling from cover letter to title, from abstract to introduction, and back and forth. If they see that these elements support, complement, and reinforce one another, you lend yourself credibility. In addition, integrate highlights from your paper in quotes, call the editor’s attention to pages and paragraphs with key claims or the most relevant findings, or summarize statements of practical significance in the conclusion or discussion. Integrating and summarizing will add substance to these elements and depict your work clearly and cohesively.

 

  1. Make it visually appealing

Selectively use

 

  • bold type
  • Headings (“A clear path forward for future mycological research”)
  • underlining
  • and bullet points

 

with a motivated purpose. Put primary headings in bold and underline secondary headings. Use bullet points to list reasons why the article deserves to be published in the journal. If appropriate, use highlighting.

 

Break up your text into short paragraphs. If you can, subdivide your letter with two to three headings to a page. This clear division invites the reader in immediately, gives your letter a well-structured appearance, and makes it easy for an editor to read. Finally, a visually appealing letter gives the impression of clear thinking.

 

  1. From gatekeeper to ally

Behind all these suggestions is the idea that the cover letter should convert the editor into a champion of your paper. You are one of many authors competing for a busy editor’s limited attention. Authors who value editors’ time and provide answers to obvious questions will be subtly rewarded. Make their job easier by using the cover letter to argue the contribution you are making (and how it is a contribution), explain your paper’s fit, highlight key elements, make suggestions, and give the editor a reason to be an ally. A supportive editor can influence the editorial decision even if the reviewers are negative.

 

Three specific cover letter techniques Examples
Provide a story, context, or background for the motivation of your study “<Author> briefly touched on controlling for years worked at a firm in the discussion of her previous paper, suggesting as a rationale that a CEO’s commitment to the status quo might explain why years worked is important. This brief mention was the inspiration for the current paper.”
Know your journal, be direct, give reasons §   “We think that Associate Editor…will read our paper with interest, since she…”

§   “Our research challenges the assumptions on CEO succession put forward by <X> in the <Y> issue of [Journal]…and will likely spark a robust debate on…”

Appeal to the interests of the editor, journal aims and scope “If our paper is published in…, we expect that it could be highly cited by theoretical researchers and practitioners for three reasons…”

 

 

None of this advice on its own will compensate for a poorly executed study or help bad research get published. But if you can successfully do these five things in your cover letter, you increase the chances of having your paper sent out for review and help ensure that the editor has no reason to reject it outright. A well written letter might just tip the scales in your favor.

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