Language Tips for Stand out Job Letters
Make the job letter writing 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.
So why are you writing?
Never assume that the purpose of your letter is obvious to your reader. You are writing a job search letter — or another type of job doc — ultimately aimed at employment or career growth.
If you’re 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 whether 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.
So what? How 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 accomplishments?
Yes, if a ghost of an outside chance exists that the benefits of your skills and achievements will not be evident to the reader.
No, if the listing of your skills and achievements is so strong that an eighth grader will get the message.
For more illustrations of when you must interpret your benefits, look over the sample cover letters in Part II.
Getting into the habit of asking yourself “So why?” and “So what?” boosts the power of your job letters by 100 percent.
Technical versus nontechnical language
Tailor your language to your reader. If you’re 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; explain any technical terms in simple, everyday language.
Concise but thorough
Because your reader may be pressed for time, aim to write a concise but thorough letter. In a cover letter, for example, 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, dynamic 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 words, sentences, and paragraphs. Avoid cramming too many ideas into each paragraph. Logically break long paragraphs into several short ones.
Write in specific terms; avoid vague descriptions. Use numbers, measures, and facts — detailed information rather than unquantified generalities. 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 $1 million in production when I instituted a new system for production scheduling.
Active versus passive voice
Passive voice indicates a state of existence with words like be, is, was, were, are, seem, has, and been — the 90-pound weaklings of verbs.
Instead of mucking up your cover letter with wimpy passive-voice verbs (“Production processes were reformed by my innovation, and $12,000 per month was saved by the company.”), choose active-voice verbs to show off your accomplishments: “My innovation reformed production processes and saved the company $15,000 per month.”
Active voice does the heavy lifting you need in your letter; it’s strong, vibrant, and vigorous — qualities you want to show off to hiring managers yourself.
Past versus present tense
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, use past tense.
When your resume says you are currently employed (20XX–Present), remember to use present tense if you refer to your current job in a cover letter. If you slip and use past tense, the reader may assume that you’ve left the job and are pretending to be currently employed.