What tips/suggestions do you have for writing a cover letter when submitting a manuscript? Does it vary depending on the outlet (e.g., higher impact journal vs. something narrower in scope)?
Jeremy: I have an old post on one part of the cover letter: suggesting referees and non-preferred referees. You should also suggest 1-2 handling editors, with a brief rationale (a phrase is fine). Remember, the EiC is almost certainly not an expert on the topic of your ms and so may well welcome advice on which editor should be assigned to handle it.
Many selective journals ask you to explain why your ms is of interest to the journals readers and how it’s novel. That bit needs to be good, otherwise you’re at risk of rejection without review. Especially at Science and Nature; you need to sweat every word of your cover letter if you’re aiming that high. Don’t just copy and paste your abstract, either; you’re aiming for something less technical than that.
You also need to include various bits of legalese (promising that you followed animal care protocols, etc.). Most journals provide a list of the points they want you to cover.
Brian: In my new role as editor-in-chief (EiC) I cannot stress how important the cover letter is. Many journals these days reject more than 50% of the papers on first read by the EiC (no its not a desirable situation but it is a natural outcome of people consistently sending their papers where they are not really appropriate). For many EiC the cover letter is make or break in this decision. And the EiC may be looking at 10 papers a day (usually in an hour).
Thus as Jeremy says there is the legalese (all authors have been consulted on the manuscript, all deserving people are named as authors, this manuscript is not under consideration elsewhere). And there are the reviewer/editor requests (or negative requests). These should all go at the end of the letter.
Then there is the first paragraph. The first paragraph (and possibly the second but you’re probably being too verbose if you have two long paragraphs) of your cover letter needs to make a compelling case that: a) you know what fits in the journal and you fit their journal (read their author instructions – people are not shy about what they want in their journal) and b) that the paper makes an exciting advance.
Its that simple. And that hard. But after the abstract, this may be the 2nd most important paragraph you write even though only one or two people will ever see it.