Writing Cover Letters That Kill

Bad Cover LetterSo, you’ve got your samples together and your resume is as shiny as a turd.  That’s great — but those are things that pretty much every writer or wanna-be can manage.  Here’s the really hard part… it’s the trickiest by far.  Writing a cover letter for a gig is the singularly most difficult challenge for a writer.  Why, I can’t quite say, but I’d assume it’s the same reason that writing a cover letter is hard for a construction worker or a professional mermaid — we simply don’t feel like it’s OK to talk nice about ourselves.

Our in-born humility isn’t all that in-born, and is in fact the result of generations of brain-washing by The Man, who would want us to stay humble.  Fuck that.  Buck the trend and figure out what it is that makes you so good at what you do.  Before you start your cover letter, make a list of your best attributes as a writer.  Even if you’ve already done this in your resume, repeat it because many folks hire solely based on your cover letter.  No pressure there.

Some Real Life Examples

My cover letter is getting pretty dusty, but once in a while I break it out — or some form of it.  I don’t use a form letter (don’t ever do that), but I do use many of the same phrases to speed up the job-hunting process when I have an opening on my schedule.  It’s important to tailor your letter to the job you’re applying for, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a few dozen stock sentences that you mix and match.

For example, I always mention my 20 years of professional writing experience because, you know, words.  I usually make sure to point out that my base training was in journalism and I worked for daily newspapers — so I’m very detail-oriented, deadline-aware and an awesome researcher.  I also include a statement that explains why I think I’m a good fit for their job.  If it’s a copywriting position selling pistachios, I might write something like this:

“Although I don’t have a lot of experience slinging pistachios, I do have a lot of experience eating them.  Man, do I love those things!  That, coupled with my experience writing about walnuts should encourage a unique and multidimensional perspective in my approach to your product.”

You get the point.  Keep it simple, get to the point, but make a point.  Make it count.

This is Why Your Cover Letter Sucks

Throw away your current cover letters, because they suck.  I know, because during my time project managing, I’ve read a lot of them and they’re like fucking torture.  Believe it or not, your cover letter is your one and only shot at the job you’re applying for — and it’s not the fucking 1950s anymore.  If I see one more stiff and formal cover letter from a writer, I will probably climb into a high Twitter Tower and start taking people out.

Now, I can help you fix some of these tragic and avoidable cover letter problems.  Just follow the bouncing ball:

  • Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever address the person in question as Mr. Smith, etc., unless you’re looking for a job writing in extremely formal language.  “Dear Sir” is just as bad.  Stop that!  Use the more familiar “Good morning, John Smith!” or “Eat my shit, Dr. Fred Thomas.”
  • Stop sending the same cover letter to every person you’re applying to work for — see my mention above about having several dozen stock sentences to swap out and that thing about personalizing the letter.
  • Calm the fuck down and get to the point.  I honestly don’t care if you wrote for your uncle’s neighbor’s church’s bulletin.  All I care is if you can write.  Can you write?  SHOW ME YOU CAN WRITE INSTEAD OF FILLING THE PAGE WITH USELESS WORDS.
  • Do everything in your power to demonstrate your natural writing voice in your cover letter.  This is so important — you’ve got to include samples, but giving your future employer a little taste of what you’ve got to offer will leave them wanting more.
  • When being asked to submit your rates, FUCKING SUBMIT YOUR RATES!  There’s a reason people request this — you should be able to talk about money, you’re an adult.  If you charge $50 an hour, say so.  If you work by the piece, but usually get $50 for a 500 word piece, say that.  How will Joe Shmoe know if he can afford you if you don’t tell him your rates?  Don’t dance around it, don’t apologize, just drop it on the table and walk away.  Here’s your example:  “I charge $50 an hour, or $50 per 500 words, depending on the structure of the project.”

I think that’s about it.  Now go forth and get work.  Stay the fuck outta my way, though, because I will destroy you with my superior firepower.  (Just kidding — my work almost entirely comes from referrals these days.  Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.  Guess how I got there, though… *points up*)