Sure, you know by now that I believe in queries, even for short, FOB pieces. (And before you send one, make sure you ask these ten questions!) But as with most things in life, there is an exception to the rule--and for nonfiction writers, that exception is submitting essays.
With an essay, you send the manuscript itself but you still need to include a brief cover letter. Go beyond the standard "EPF" ("enclosed please find") letter; catch the editor's attention and give a little background about yourself. The essay itself will sell (or not) on its own merits, but your cover letter is what intrigues the editor to actually read it.
Here's a quick example of a good one; my comments are in blue:
Dear Ms. West:
I’m writing to submit an essay, “A Taste for Sex,” for your “First Person” section. It explores the chasm between lovemaking and baby-making, and I think women will enjoy the piece. And with one in seven couples experiencing infertility, it's likely to resonate with many of your readers. [This was pitched to the now defunct "WomanNews" section of The Chicago Tribune. Note that I've let the editor know that I read her newspaper by suggesting where it belongs, and provided a little detail about the piece as well as provided a statistic to support that readers will be interested in it.]
I’m a fulltime freelancer and author who’s written for more than forty national magazines including Woman’s Day, Redbook, Parents, Marie Claire, Family Circle, Fitness, Self, Shape, Oxygen, and Energy for Women. If you have any questions about the essay, please let me know. [I've included a brief rundown on my experience and clips. However, I should have mentioned that I was well-versed in the difference between lovemaking and baby-making (my husband and I were trying to conceive at the time) to bolster my ISG.]
Thank you very much for your time. I look forward to hearing from you soon. [Standard closing language. If I were sending this today, I'd tell her I'd follow up on the piece in four to six weeks.]
This cover letter, which I've tweaked here, led to my first essay sale, and the most "reader mail" I've ever had from a piece. I've also used cover letters to offer reprint rights to a story that has already been published, though I prefer now to send a letter listing all of my relevant stories and letting the editor choose the ones he/she would like to see.
Readers, what do you think? If you sell essays, do you use a cover letter? Why or why not?
And what do you think of my month's worth of templates so far? Stay tuned for more!