Reading the slush pile has been very educational. What I have learned is how to tell from a cover letter that I’m unlikely to like the story; I’ve been wrong exactly once.
In my last post, I talked about how publication changes very little about getting published again. This is doubly true when you look at it from literary magazine side. As much as I’d like to think that having something in my bio gives me an in, the truth is that most of the people whose stories I read have things in their bio, and most of them get rejected. A few people try to get very cute or interesting in their bio. Unless that directly relates to their story, it makes no difference at all. At most, it sours my first impression, as the time you worked as a topless acrobat sounds like it could be an interesting read, and it’s disappointing to not get that story.
I have an especial dislike for someone who describes what the work is supposed to be about. A one-sentence plot summary is fine, but people have submitted with two paragraphs about the themes and psychological elements of the story. The work should stand alone. Or people will say that the work is supposed to be funny–it rarely is. Or that it’s post-constructivist or some such… I’m not even sure what that means, but my experience is that it’s incomprehensible.
One of the stranger indicators is length. On the one hand, there’s no right size for a story–it’s whatever size it needs to be, whether that 25 words of microfiction or 250,000 words of epic novel. On the other hand, when I’m reading a submitted short story that’s under 2,000 words, it’s usually underdeveloped. Likewise, if it’s over 5,000 words, it’s usually overwritten. (Longer works have to be especially good–first, to hold someone’s attention, and second, to justify the page real estate they take up.)
Fixing these things in a cover letter will not get you published. Your work is what gets you published. But there’s no need to disincline someone from liking your work before they read it.