An Editor’s Guide To Writing The Perfect Attention-Grabbing Cover Letter
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An Editor’s Guide To Writing The Perfect Attention-Grabbing Cover Letter

Writing a cover letter that your prospective employer is as happy with as you are seems like the unicorn of job seeking; it cannot be possible. Ay, but possible it is. You just have to think a little more like a journalist.

Why a journalist? Well, they’re trained to write as clearly as their bitter brains will allow, presenting the facts while leaving out the fluff. Your potential employer is just like an editor—allergic to fluff. I know, because I’m both. I was taught about author George Orwell’s rules for writing back in university, which (journalism grads aside) not enough people are, TBH.

Want my honest-to-Goddess advice on what your cover letter needs (and really, really doesn’t need) before you apply for that role you’re eyeing? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t, but I’m going to give it to straight you anyway. It’s for your own good. Love you.

First off, nothing “weird”

OK, let’s get this out of the way. We all know “weird” is relative, but when it comes to applying for a job, it looks a little like this: Writing a cover letter using only magazine clippings, sending a cover letter by courier with some complementary baked goods, and trying to impress your potential employer by researching their personal interests and relaying them back. For example, “I’m a Pisces, so I know we’d get along great!”

Also, using humor. Of any kind. It’s just not worth the risk.

Show, don’t tell

Are you confident and hardworking? Congratulations, you and everybody else. In essence, “show don’t tell” means you never have to praise yourself with a bunch of useless adjectives in your cover letter, because what you’ve done speaks for itself.

So if you managed a team of three IT analysts at your last job or grew a vlog-style Instagram account to 30K from scratch, the message is, yes, you’re confident and hardworking. In fact you’re so confident, you don’t even need to state the obvious. And it’s that kind of self-belief that’ll make you stand out.

No clichés ever

Do you have a passion for fashion? No, you don’t! Take your “passion for fashion,” burn it, then stomp on the ashes. Because tired old clichés are the devil and using them will cause one of two things to occur. 1) Your potential employer will skim over your cover letter even faster than they would otherwise, meaning it becomes totally unmemorable, or 2) They’ll omit an almost-audible eyeroll.

The latter is especially likely if you’re applying for a communications role. So if you’re tempted to describe your approach as “out of the box” or address the reader as “whom it may concern,” stop. Take a sec. How else could you get this point across?

Active voice always

Cover letters have a way of bringing out an awkward, hyper-formal tone in many of us. Like aliens attempting to emulate a person looking for job, our sentences get all twisty. We say things like “In my last position, I spent four years working with the full suite of Adobe products,” instead of saying “I’m proficient in Adobe Creative Suite.” Don’t do that.

Use the present tense throughout. It creates a “doing” structure to your cover letter that, like a news report, sounds dynamic and worth paying attention to right now. You didn’t used to crush your roles and responsibilities, you crush them, full stop.

Avoid redundancies

Serious question: Why would you use a long word when you could use a short one? A cover letter full of complicated words and sentences is only going to make your application appear more dense, and therefore more skim-able. Your potential employer only has so much time to devote to poring through every applicant’s cover letter, so don’t let complicated big words work against you.

Stay clear, sharp, and results-focused. This means eliminating any words that don’t need to be there. They’re what we (me) in the biz call a “waste of space.” Chop ’em!

Keep the flow going

This one’s very closely related to the above. If a word, sentence, or even paragraph isn’t providing new information and keeping the reader slash future boss interested, get rid of it. Every word in a traditional piece of journalism has its place. If it doesn’t further the story, it’s goodnight sweet Prince to those chunks of copy.

Better to throw some of your fussed-over words in the bin than have someone else put the whole thing in their bin, right? Be brutal with your editing. Ask a friend for help. Cut out anything that doesn’t need to be there.

A sparkling clean and engaging cover letter is your ticket to jobbie city. Thinking like a journalist is a little like thinking like a sculptor (if that analogy works better for you): Trim away at your words until only the best and most beautiful remain.