In his wonderful collection of correspondence, Letters of Note, editor Shaun Usher includes one from Robert Pirosh, a New York copywriter.
Pirosh wanted a job as a screenwriter and in an attempt to secure such a post he composed what Usher describes as:
One of the greatest, most effective cover letters ever to be written.
Usher tells us that Pirosh’s letter got him three interviews, “one of which led to his job as a junior writer at MGM”.
Though letter writing is surely a lot less common now than in the past, writing across other genres continues to permeate contemporary professional, educational and personal lives. And it is certainly still the case that many companies will request a cover letter with a job application.
But despite the fact that so many of us write, type, text or tweet – (sometimes incessantly) every day – few of us may feel that we write well. And fewer still would consider ourselves “writers”.
If you are confronted with a writing task, and you find yourself bamboozled or blocked, you need to draw on ideas, principles and strategies that can assist. And with this in mind, here are seven top writing tips below.
Writers who are mindful of these seven tips should find that their writing is more effective and the writing process more enjoyable. And who knows it may even help you secure that dream job.
1. Know your purpose
You need to know what it is you want to say and the effect you want your writing to have. You will, for example, write differently if you are applying for a job than if you are thanking your great aunt.
When writing to secure an interview or to get shortlisted, you need to have at least two important purposes in mind. The first is to address the topic – this will mean including the necessary content of an effective cover letter. Second, you should aim to convince the readers than you are the person that they most want to recruit.
2. Name and know your audience
Every audience, you dear reader included, brings expectations to a piece of text. The text works when expectations are met, or better still, exceeded. Similarly, writing fails when the reader is disappointed or worse yet, offended by the writing.
Know your audience, and if you’re writing to get a job, work out what it is that your potential employer wants – then seek to exceed their expectations.
3. Identify the genre
Different forms of writing have different rules and conventions. They may use different language and look differently on the page or on the screen. You need to know what is typical of a genre to be able to write well in that form or style.
A formal cover letter as part of a job application will look and sound very different to a text from a pal after a night out. Do some research and find out what good models of the genre look and sound like.
It is very rare that the polished work which professional writers produce has not been drafted, redrafted and revised through several iterations. You should do the same.
5. Read it aloud
When we work with writers we always ask them to read aloud so that they can hear what they actually wrote and not what they thought they wrote. Often they stop themselves, mid-sentence, and say, “you know, that’s not what I meant to say”, at which point they start to reformulate their thinking and the articulation of their ideas.
6. Share with someone
Assuming you are writing for a reader (this may not always be the case) then it is a good idea to try out that writing on a willing volunteer before you submit a final draft. Ask your reader for a response and some feedback.
If you’re lucky, they might even help you to formulate new ideas or ways of wording. The writing process then becomes a shared one – which can be both interesting and enthusing.
7. Pause before you publish
These days, potentially any writing you give away, send out, or post online could go viral. If you aren’t content to see it on the front of a national newspaper should you really tweet it?
It can often feel risky to go public with your ideas – even as professional writers we feel that too. But the rewards can be extraordinary and the thrill of it all, exhilarating. So be courageous in your writing. Write authentically and with passion, but do make sure you give it a final once over before you hit the submit button.
You’ve found the perfect job and finally sat down to write that cover letter (good for you!), but immediately you’ve run into a roadblock. How do you even start the darn thing? Should you use Mr. or Ms.? Do you include a first name? And what if you’ve searched high and low, but can’t find the hiring manager’s name?
Don’t fret! Follow these rules for cover letter salutation salvation.
Rule #1: Use a Formal Full Name Salutation
Unless you know for sure that the culture of the company is more casual, use the hiring manager’s first and last name, including a “Mr.” or “Ms.” (e.g., Mr. Jack Smith).
Most letters I see still use the “Dear” greeting, though I’ve seen a growing trend of people dropping it and starting with “Hello” or just the name. Either way works. The most important part is having the actual name. Never use “To Whom it May Concern” or “Dear or Sir or Madam”—nothing could be more generic (not to mention archaic). Your cover letter could be the first opportunity you have to make an impression on the hiring manager, so make sure you show that you did your company research.
One note of caution, if you can’t decipher whether to use “Mr.” or “Ms.” based on the name and a little Google stalking (and you don’t have an easy way out with a “Dr.”), just drop the title.
Rule #2: If You Don’t Know the Hiring Manager, Guess
Sometimes, even after hours of online searching (try these tips), you still might not be able to definitively figure out who exactly the hiring manager for the position you’re applying for is—and that’s OK.
If you can only find a list of the executives of the company and you’re not completely confident who the hiring manager is, use the head of the department for the position you’re applying for. In the end, no one will fault you for addressing the letter higher up than necessary. This approach is definitely better than not using a name in your cover letter, because it still shows the time and effort you took to find out who the department head is.
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Rule #3: Be as Specific as Possible
So, you’ve done your due diligence and after an exhaustive search—nothing. You just can’t find a single name to address your cover letter to. If that’s the case, don’t worry. The company is likely privately held with no reason to share who its employees are—and, more importantly, is aware of this.
If this is the case and you don’t have a name to use, try to still be as specific as possible in your greeting. Consider using “Senior Analyst Hiring Manager” or “Research Manager Search Committee”—something that shows that you’ve written this letter with a particular audience in mind.
Ultimately, you want your cover letter to convey your interest in the position. To start off on the right note, get the salutation right by being as specific as possible—ideally with the name of the hiring manager. Of course, that can’t always happen, but as long as the effort is clearly made, you’ll be starting your cover letter in the right place.