50 ways to write a (cover) letter

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Kyle’s blog entry on writing scientific papers got me thinking about an important – and underappreciated – part of submitting your work to a journal. So I thought I’d write down a few of my thoughts about cover letters. A caveat, of course, is that these are just my opinions – maybe other NPG editors can chime in and let me know if they agree/disagree with the items on this list…

1. You don’t need to discuss much, but always submit a cover letter (unless the journal doesn’t allow it) – I obviously can’t speak for editors at other journals, but I always read the cover letter. It’s often the first thing an editor reads, so don’t miss out on a chance to make a good impression.

2. You don’t need to be coy, Roy – the cover letter should contain a brief summary of the work, but be careful not to over- or underplay the discovery. If there are other key papers that have been recently published (i.e., this work refutes the model proposed in that paper), then point them out in the cover letter too – this part of the letter can be used to put your work into a broader context and highlight certain aspects that were unexpected/surprising.

3. Eschew obfuscation, espouse elucidation – it’s fine to assume the reader is a Ph.D.-level scientist, but I think it’s worth remembering that they may not be intimately familiar with every detail of your particular system. For this reason, I think it’s worth taking the time to highlight the main points/the major implications of the work (see #2, though) without getting too bogged down in the technical details. If it’s the first time anyone’s shown X, then that’s worth highlighting – just don’t forget to explain why X is so important…

4. Eats, Shoots & Leaves – Microsoft Word’s spell-check can be very helpful, but I think it’s worth asking someone outside of your immediate field to read through your cover letter (and paper) to see if they notice any spelling/grammatical errors or confusing sentences/paragraphs. (But don’t get too worried – you don’t need to buy a Chicago Manual of Style to write a good cover letter…)

5. If you’ve talked with an editor about the work (at a meeting, for example), definitely mention this in your cover letter. This is less important if the team of editors is fairly small (but I think it’s still worth doing) – at Nature, there’s a fairly large editorial team and your paper may not be assigned to the person you talked with (this is especially true for multidisciplinary work). Though we circulate new submissions to editors who handle papers in related areas, it’s always good to know if you’ve talked with someone else on the team, as this will ensure that they see the paper before any editorial decision is made.

6. Always suggest referees – most journals let you list a few potential referees that you feel are particularly qualified to review the work. But don’t put down your old Ph.D./post-doc advisor or someone who you’ve recently published with (as many editors check PubMed or other databases before contacting referees) – even if there is no actual conflict of interest, many editors avoid a situation where there could be a perceived conflict of interest. These lists tend to be useful starting places when contacting referees (especially if there is a special technique involved or if the paper involves a discovery in a relatively small field).

7. Nature allows authors to submit a short list (usually two or three names) of people working on related work (or people who the authors feel may not be able to act as an impartial referee). This is very useful information, as (unfortunately) competition and bias exist, and it’s best to know this before we start contacting referees. But please keep the list short – I’ve seen entire departments or schools listed in this section – or you may get an email from the editor asking you to revise your list.

Hmm – I think that’s it. I guess I’m a few shy of 50 – any other NPG editors want to add their thoughts?


Joshua Finkelstein (Senior Editor, Nature)