Using Cover Letter Language that Snaps, Crackles, and Pops
Visualize your reader and write specifically for that reader. Speaking directly to your reader may seem obvious, but this tenet is one of the most overlooked aspects of effective writing. Writing to a real person makes your letter more personable and interesting to read. It shows you have considered your reader and want that person to understand what you have to say.
Make this task easier for yourself not only by reviewing a few rules of grammar, but also by reminding yourself to answer the big “So why?” and “So what?” questions in every letter.
Why are you writing?
So why are you writing? Never assume the purpose of your letter is obvious to your reader. You are writing a cover letter — or another type of job letter — ultimately aimed at employment.
I f you are writing a cover letter, you want to land an interview. Say so. Try to maintain control by saying that you will be in touch at a specified time to see if an interview is possible. When this approach seems impractical, like when you respond to a blind recruitment ad, close with a benefit you offer — “My former boss describes me as the best multimedia designer in the state. Can we talk?”
If you are writing another type of job letter, tell your reader exactly what you want. Leave no room for guessing.
What does it matter?
For each sentence you write, ask yourself, “So what? What does this information mean to my reader — a benefit gained, a loss avoided, a promise of good things to come — what?” Don’t, for instance, merely list a bunch of skills and achievements — what good will those skills do for the person who reads your letter?
Must you always interpret for the reader the benefit of your skills and achievements?
- Yes, if a ghost of an outside chance exists that the benefits of your skills and achievements are not evident to the reader. The former chancellor of a university in Berlin may need to explain how her skills relate to the running of a university in Ireland.
- No, if the listing of your skills and achievements is so strong that an eighth grader will get the message. The former President of the United States would not need to explain how his skills relate to the running of a university in the United States.
Getting in the habit of asking yourself “So what?” boosts the power of your job letters by 100 percent.
Technical versus nontechnical language
Tailor your language to your reader. If you are an engineer writing to another engineer, use technical language. If you’re an engineer writing to a director of human resources, your reader may not understand technical engineering language, so you need to explain any technical terms in simple, everyday language.
Concise but thorough
Your reader may be pressed for time, so you should aim to write a concise but thorough cover letter. You may wonder how being both concise and thorough at the same time is possible. Think of this task as giving a lengthy explanation in as few words as possible. Tell your reader as much about yourself as you can, but don’t make your reader wade through extra words and unnecessary details. Consider the following example:
I am a person who believes that the values of fervent dedication, cooperative teamwork, dynamica leadership, and adaptive creativity really make up the cornerstones and are the crucial components of any totally successful sales venture.
Revised using concise but thorough language, the same sentence now reads:
Dedication, teamwork, leadership, and creativity are essential to successful sales.
Use short, simple words, sentences, and paragraphs. Avoid cramming too many ideas into each paragraph. Logically break long paragraphs into several short ones.
Simple, direct language
The goal of any written work is communication. To make that communication easier, use simple, direct language that gets your message across clearly and concisely. Don’t use your thesaurus to find words that may make you look smarter and the recipient of your letter dumber. Instead, use your thesaurus to find the word best suited for the meaning you want to achieve. For example,
Eschew superfluous obfuscation
makes more sense translated as
Avoid unnecessary complication
For more direct language, use specific terms; avoid generalities or vague descriptions. Use numbers, measures, and facts — detailed information — rather than unquantified descriptions. Consider the following example:
I saved the company a fortune when I instituted a new system for scheduling.
Now read the same example revised for specifics:
I saved the company more than one million dollars in production when I instituted a new system for production scheduling.
Active voice versus passive voice
Active voice uses verbs to indicate a motion or action. Using active voice makes your writing more dynamic and interesting. With active voice, you identify who does what — and how!
On the other hand, passive voice (as in this sentence) is characterized by passive verbs and is a description of a state of existence. Because passive voice is generally weak, avoiding it is beneficial. Some passive verbs include be, is, was, were, are, seem, has, and been.
Revising the preceding paragraph for active voice results in the following:
Passive voice, on the other hand, characterized by passive verbs, indicates a state of existence. Because passive voice generally weakens writing, try to avoid it.
Passive voice just sits there, without vigor and without action. Take responsibility for your achievements. Be active.
For the most part, use present tense as you’re writing. After all, your letter is something you’re creating now. When you refer to accomplishments or achievements, use past tense.
When your resume says you are currently employed, remember to use the present tense if you refer to your current job in a cover letter. If you slip and use the past tense, the reader may assume you’ve left the job and are pretending to be currently employed.