Interview: Why your cover letter is crucial

Nature Astronomy editor Paul Woods on how to write cover letters

When you have been editing, re-editing and proof-reading your manuscript multiple times, it’s easy to forget that there is another thing you should do before you submit it: writing a cover letter. A question that my clients often ask me is: What do editors want to read in a cover letter and what should I absolutely not fill it with? To share the answers with all of you, I chatted about cover letters with a friend of mine, Dr. Paul Woods. He is an editor with the journal Nature Astronomy and receives cover letters every day.


Paul, why are cover letters important?

Cover letters are a place for direct communication to the editor dealing with your paper, and they are not seen by reviewers, so they're a perfect place for frank and open communication.

That sounds like an opportunity one shouldn’t miss out on. What mistakes do authors make in their cover letters?

There are no really critical mistakes, but, for instance, I don’t need to see the abstract, I can read it in the manuscript. Same holds for an author list with their list of affiliations (unless the authors have opted for double-blind peer review). Never ever just copy-paste the entire paper in the cover letter… Yes, some people do this.

It’s good to know what not to do. So, how can authors do it right and use the space in a cover letter in the best way?

I would like to see a concise summary of the work that has been performed. One or two paragraphs are ideal. In Nature Astronomy, the author is also required to indicate how the work or the results make an improvement over previous work, that is, other refereed papers in the literature. More specialist journals might not have this strict requirement. The authors can be explicit here - I appreciate things like "Our results are more robust than XXX et al. because they didn't do any completeness tests, whereas we perform these in a couple of ways (see Methods section)."

Cover letters are a place for direct communication to the editor
— Dr. Paul Woods, Editor of Nature Astronomy

Why do you recommend to point this out?

Knowing these things not only helps me to assess the impact of the work, but also to spot whether the reviewers have fully appreciated the level of advance that the current paper makes.

Is there anything else authors should write in their cover letter?

I like to see suggestions for good referees who will appreciate the topic and importance of the work. But don’t give a list of colleagues and collaborators… Editors do check! On this note, I also welcome suggestions for referees to avoid because of some professional conflict.

The cover letter is also the right place to communicate relevant information of organisational nature. For example, if there are time pressures or restrictions on the publication of the manuscript. Do mention if there is a companion manuscript with which publication has to be synchronised. Nature Astronomy doesn’t do series, but if your manuscript is part of one, it might be useful to tell the editor in the cover letter.

Thank you very much for all these insights, Paul.  

For more tips to increase your chances to get accepted in a high-impact journal, click here.

If you want help with your cover letter or research paper, just give me a shout to learn about the different editing and writing consulting packages I offer.  

About the Author:

I’m Dr Anna Clemens, a scientific editor and writing coach for scientists. I give workshops about scientific writing, offer strategy calls and edit papers and proposals. I’d love to work with you, please click here for more information.

I also regularly blog about scientific writing and write articles about science for magazines and websites. I hold a PhD in Chemistry/Materials Science.

When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably out and about with my dog and assistant Zuza.

I’d love to connect on Twitter (@scientistswrite) and Instagram (@scientistswhowrite)