Cover letters are hard to write, and writing good ones takes time. You should not feel inadequate as a writer if you find that a single, well written, and truly personal cover letter takes more than a day to write, particularly at the beginning of your search. With practice, you will probably compose letters more rapidly. As you work on cover letters, however, keep in mind that making the effort to get them looking and sounding good can pay you back many times over.
Finding a writing style that reveals your personality, while maintaining a professional tone is a demanding job. One of the major criticisms I hear of cover letters is that the bulk are stiff, dry, formalistic, and difficult to read. Another major criticism is that they lack any sense of enthusiasm or excitement. Both criticisms suggest the same underlying problem the writer tried too hard (and succeeded all too well) at making the letter sound as impersonal and "businesslike" as possible. To achieve this peculiar and unpleasant effect, writers often pattern cover letters on the business documents with which most of us are, unfortunately, quite familiar those awful form letters banks and insurance companies are so fond of sending customers or those deadly internal memos that so often fill in boxes. The resulting cover letters are likely to be just as welcome and just as well received as the documents after which they are patterned.
Some people, in an effort to get away from the pretentious, unreadable prose style so mindlessly spawned within bureaucratic organizations, go to the opposite extreme and wind up sounding like Ed McMahon selling insurance through the mail to millions. The prose is lively enough, but its hyperbole and frantic tone generate suspicion and annoyance. Readers tend to think, "If this guy is so great, why does he have to use such a hard sell?" Or, alternatively, they may judge the writer unprofessional because the tone and approach of the letter seem unsuited to the purpose and occasion.
To put your voice into your writing without sacrificing the dignity, precision, and authority that your cover letters should convey, think of composition in two stages. In the first stage, imagine that you are seated across from the person to whom you are writing. Talk to him or her about why you are the best candidate for the work you seek. Use the same kind of language and sentence structure you would use in conversation. No one says even in the most stilted of business conversations "As per your ad in last Sunday's employment section. ..." But many people feel compelled to write this way. Don't. Go instead with a more conversational tone and choice of words like, "I saw your ad in last Sunday's employment section. ..."
During phase one, write quickly and don't edit; you may find free writing a helpful technique at this point. You are not aiming for perfection yet, which will come in phase two. Rather, you are aiming to discover your message. To discover your message, you need to explore the question, "What do I need to say about myself to persuade my reader to interview me?" As you write quickly the things that come to mind, you will start to develop a clearer sense of what your cover letter needs to communicate. Message firmly in mind, you can select the material most germane to getting it across persuasively. Once again, the key to creating masterpieces is to generate material in quantity, from which you can select the best, thus arriving at quality.
Before the second stage of writing, give yourself a substantial break go take a walk, do the dishes, or make some phone calls. Stage two requires distance and objectivity. When you return from your break, edit your first draft systematically not by ear alone. Look for potential reading problems: words, phrases, and passages that may require more than a single reading to comprehend. Among the potential problems to search for are:
- Long sentences, especially several in a row.
- Series of short, choppy sentences.
- Repetitious use of words or sentence patterns (in cover letters, it is particularly important to check the beginning of each sentence and paragraph; if each begins with "I," you need to do some work).
- Over use of passive voice.
- Dangling modifying phrases (e.g., "Having read the article in last week's Forbes, Zertex, Inc. appeals to me more than ever because . . .").
- Heavy use of technical jargon and acronyms.
- Loosely structured paragraphs that skip or shift from topic to topic with no apparent unifying theme.
- Errors in punctuation and usage.
Cover Letter Law 2: After you have composed and edited a letter, rewrite the first paragraph.
The opening of any communication whether a letter, memo, phone conversation, or interview sets the stage for what follows. A false or a slow start may prevent you from winning or even finishing the race. You need to get and focus your reader's attention in the first paragraph, and you cannot do either effectively if you use it as a warm up exercise. Frequently, the best opening sentences get buried in the middle of letters, where it's often too late for them to have much impact. When you have finished a cover letter, look through it for the most arresting, assertive sentence. It will probably be at the end of your second or third paragraph. Disinter it and move it to the start of your letter. Then rewrite the rest of the first paragraph, if necessary, and patch up the paragraph from which you took your opening sentence. Below are examples of buried sentences that added life and interest to letters when moved to the beginning:
I could help Zertex meet its challenging marketing goals, just as I helped Mega money University increase its applicants by 75 percent in just two years.
I can cut your costs without cutting quality.
Zertex wants innovators, and my career is one of turning bright ideas into profitable projects.
Fifteen years in project management have shown my ability to make groups into teams and to make teams into winners.
The ultimate impact of a good start depends, of course, on what follows. A strong opening can look pretty limp when the follow through is weak. If you make an assertive claim about yourself in your first sentence, you must back it up with facts. If you say you can cut costs without compromising quality, you had better give at least one example of quantifiable, verifiable gains in productivity due to your efforts. Don't try to back up an assertion with hype or with additional general claims about your abilities and accomplishments.
Cover Letter Law 3: Use good quality and relatively conservative stationery that matches your resume.
Almost every book and every expert encourages job seekers to use a medium weight paper for cover letters, to select a kind that matches the feel and color of the resume, and to stick with shades of white or slightly off white. Yet, some job seekers feel amazingly insecure about excellent stationery and others disregard time honored advice in favor of lavender, scented paper, hoping to stand out from the crowd. Either extreme is silly. If you are using a good quality, medium weight bond that is white or not far from it, you are fine. Stop worrying about trivia and get on with your job search.
If you are considering paper that is blue, yellow, pink, gray, or green, forget it. Graphic designers may be able to use more colorful and interesting papers, but most other folks should stick to boring old white (or slightly off white). You will not get noticed in an advantageous way by using colored stationery. I don't know of anyone who has been asked for an interview much less offered a job based on an unusual choice of stationery. Do you?