Category Archives: writing

Writing Stellar Cover Letters: 5 Small + Mighty Parts

writing stellar cover letters in five partsYou are not your resume. You are so much more than that, lady.

You might be your cover letter, though. (Sorry!)

It’s the only handshake you’ve got before somebody sweeps in and offers a face-to-face or voice-to-voice conversation about a job or an internship.

I know you’re a hardworking, passionate, busy-till-the-sun-comes-up-tomorrow kind of gal, but the world doesn’t yet.

Your cover letter is the window to your future job, so if you love what you do as much as you act like it, the best thing you can do is create something that showcases all you have to offer in a one-page letter.

A few years ago, I thought of these suckers as arbitrary top pages for short story submissions. I was a small fish in a big, loud, rambunctious crowd. My confidence in the publishing industry was miniscule.

In the wake of looking for an internship, an honest-to-God, get-my-hands-dirty internship, I hit the backspace button on that theory. That spring, I wrote nearly 90 cover letters.

Why Now?

A few weeks ago, I received a message from an old high school acquaintance who wanted some hands-on advice for her fellow college grads and undergrads. They were wading into the water, hesitant to jump into a career path, but even more so to begin putting themselves down on paper.

I could understand that. I could totally, gut-stirringly understand that.

That’s why I began writing passionate, but economic cover letters. Nobody wanted me to tell them in a 1,000-word essay why I had always dreamed of working for them (thank God I only said that, with total honesty, a handful of times – there are only so many ‘dream jobs’ we can envision at the ripe age of 21).

It boils down to one question: why should they spend more than five minutes reviewing my file before tossing it out – what can I do for them? Why does my experience matter?

Three words for you. Connect. Those. Dots.

Writing those letters becomes the art of dissecting apart our past to barter towards an ever-changing future. The best we can do is work hard, put our time where it best suits, and learn all we can to leverage it weeks or months or years down the road.

Let me propose a few alterations to the throwaway self-introduction.


Part One: You Love Them + They Should Love You Because ______.

You’re writing to inform them that you (really want this job, basically) because you have experience (in the same industry, in a similar industry, in a similar position, doing similar things) and, because of that (really think they ought to consider you).*

*Everything in parentheses is broad and/or slang for something professional and specific.


Part Two: You Told Me What You Need, So Here’s How I Own That

You’ve got the job description in front of you — use + abuse it for two things:

1) You’re sure this is the right fit for you? Sure you’d like to spend some time trying to win over a gaming company hiring a programmer when you have never so much as picked up a controller but always did know your way around HTML – close enough, right?

2) You’re writing this section with an armful of actionable “I can do this and this and this” phrases in your back pocket. Please hold—you already do 95 percent of what’s in the job description? Did you mention that or hope they would infer from the job titles?


Part Three: So Those Programs? I Am Like A Jedi With Those Babies

Creative job descriptions are unique in that they tend to list every program your eyes ever scanned as a requirement or preferred qualification. Depending on what you’re applying for, you’ll be waist deep in a bulleted list of coding languages or design software or customer databases or social networks.

(A great reason to start loving your MacBook Pro until it spits out a beautiful new graphic/website/story/advertisement/business card/logo design/email campaign every single week. People love samples. They also love honesty. So if you can honestly own the whole Adobe Creative Suite, that’s something to write about – in half a sentence, of course.)


Part Four: Here’s Why My Work Meshes With You, Part II

One last call for winning them over. Better tell ‘em who they’re dealing with. I tend to write that I work well in fast-paced, detail-oriented environments. And yeah, it’s like, “Suuuuuuure you do.” But then, if you look at the jobs I’ve had, you start thinking that’s exactly what was required of me in all of them. So it’s legit.

What can you say about how you work? Why do you really love them and this opportunity they’ve got waiting to be filled? What two sentences can pack a punch before you thank them and sign off?


Part Five: Thanks For Not Using This As A Trash Can-Bound Basketball (Yet)

Sincerity + gratitude go a long way. Finding a perfect candidate in a mound of 200+ resumes has got to be tough. So when someone does get your cover letter + resume and makes it to the final paragraph, please oh please thank them for doing so. Just make sure it’s with a little more confidence than that section header above.

I’ve learned that practice goes a long way – not just with writing cover letters, but with work samples too. Also: please, oh, please, tailor them to the individual (person, if possible; company and position, if nothing else). 

Before The Glam: 6 Staples For The Dirty Side Of Writing

The idea of writing a book and seeing your name pressed into its spine is glamorous.

But the distance between the first line and the hardcover release is a cavern massive enough to echo when you shout across it.

It’s daunting, but thank God we don’t think about that when we write.

Because honestly, I don’t recommend dwelling on it.

You’ll get as far as you’re going to get by sweating it out and putting in the hours to craft a first draft and make tedious revisions, tearing the plot apart and piecing it back together.

Then, you’ll have to find someone else to believe in the story the way you did that first day, when the idea was thrumming in your eardrums and spurring your fingertips to action. You’ll have to get down to business.

Querying is the art of finding that representative: an agent.

When I queried my first book, I had no illusions about the ease with which I’d sweep some book fiend of her feet: I was 19. I knew 19-year-olds didn’t get book deals like they did manicures or driver’s licenses or boyfriends.

I knew it’d be an uphill battle, so I prepared for that.

It’s been four years since I’d been ready to make another hard-hitting attempt at representation, but since then my library of publishing resources has expanded.

Today, I’d like to share some of those with you.

books for writers on writing and publishing

1. 2012 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market by Adria Haley | 2. Getting Unstuck Without Coming Unglued: A Woman’s Guide To Unblocking Creativity by Susan O’Doherty, PhD | 3. Turning Life Into Fiction by Robin Hemley | 4. 2012 Guide To Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino | 5. The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Novel Writing | 6. Ready. Set. Novel! Writers Workbook by Chris Baty, Lindsey Grant, & Tavia Stewart-Streit

Standing On Creativity (+ 11 Other Lessons I Learned Since Getting Serious About Writing)

In any given year, we learn a TON about our world, our ideas, and ourselves. We challenge the voices in our heads and the billboards on the streets. Writing becomes the art of rewriting, of finessing the notions we’ve developed, refining the foundations we stand on, continually arcing toward this end goal of reaching our customers, our followers, our loyal advocates.

This year, I learned that lesson again and again. It smacked into me like a wave, drowning out the idea that I could just put my words down once, send them into the abyss of the World Wide Web, and wait with crossed hands for the echoes back of understanding and acceptance and elation.

Of course, that didn’t happen. Instead, I found myself standing over and over in the same spot, trying to make my messages better that time so someone might take pause and listen to the next one and the next one and someday, maybe, reach out or act in response.

What that caused was a series of lessons, developed during my 9-to-5 job + passion projects, that I’m sharing with you below. Sift through and find what you need.

lessons about writing professionally - standing on creativity

1. Stand On Creativity

My former boss used to say he had to sit down to get creative. For him, the light bulb only turned on when he was at his desk, pencil in hand, prepared for the ideas to land on his legal pad. For me, though, that always seemed stifling. I had to get up, walk around, distract myself a bit before I could work through a problem.

Once, I read a study that explained our inability to remember what we’d forgotten if we continually dwelled on it. The synapses calling the lost item or task to mind tried, and failed, to make the leap because they were paralyzed by the constant focus on the forgetting, rather than hunting for the source of the feeling itself. That’s what it’s like when I sit on creativity: focusing on the act of writing rather than allowing my brain to circumvent the action and just write.

2. Kill Some Trees

I used to bring a legal pad and pen in my tote bag with me to the beach, back when I was a teenager and my summers were filled with minimum wage paychecks and weeklong excursions to the Outer Banks. Then, I’d sit down and write page after page of my latest novel, the words flowing same as the waves crashing into the sandy expanse in front of me.

When I’d get home, type the pages up, and begin on the next scene or chapter, my fingers felt tired, my creativity lost, the story at a dead end. I couldn’t figure out why. Surely it was slower to hand-write a novel than type it.

The truth was a simple one: I’d been more focused on the story itself when I wrote by hand.
I’ve seen it work with everything from feature stories to white papers to cover letters to blog posts: when I write by hand, then type it, I force myself to focus the first time and weed out anything I got carried away with as I enter it into my computer.

3. Come Back Later

I used to think the best work was written in one sitting. Edited later, maybe. Only recently did it occur to me that writing a novel, or a 52-page ebook, for instance, in one sitting, would be painful at best.

I don’t suggest you write three sentences and call it a day. But knowing you’re not chained to the desk until the piece is complete can be freeing.

If you’re a procrastinator, this can be tough. But if you have time, even an hour or two to break it up, the fresh perspective may leave you with something you’re more proud of.

4. Do Your Homework

This is my life right now. I’m a complete fish out of water when it comes to the subject matter I write about every day for work. Quickly, I learned that the Internet was teeming with information — some well-written, some poorly executed — I needed to grasp my company’s services and educate clients, leads and referring businesses.

In order to effectively communicate, two processes take place: comprehending the material ourselves and expunging it in a way that makes sense and incentivizes the reader or viewer to do something about it. Harmony comes when we learn enough to understand, spit it out, and still speak to the receiver at their level — not above or below them (that’s important too).

5. Flip Through Good Housekeeping

In college, my mom would surprise me by shipping over issues of Writer’s Digest, which was great because I could read articles on every angle of the writing process. But when I’d come home, there, on the fireplace, was a stack of Good Housekeeping issues, loaded with DIY projects and 20-minute meals. At first, I read them for that: the quick and easy skillet fajitas for my crazy Mondays and crock pot soup recipes for blizzards in February.

What really made me read them cover-to-cover? The copy. Every subheading, every preview, every blurb was crafted with witty or heart-wrenching or encouraging prose, all of it effortless and otherwise unnoticed by the general population but pulling me deeper into a love of words that express exactly what they need to and nothing more.

That’s all good writing is: an unnoticed, effortless portrayal of our necessary truths.

6. Read The Bad Stuff, Too

I’ve been blogging for three years, and looking for good blogs to read for at least that time. Most often, I’m disappointed. I find a good post but it feels more like a diamond in the rough than a gem in a pile of other jewels.

It’s the same with web copy. Before I started writing web copy as a professional, I never noticed it. Big type, sure, but not the verbiage on the About page or description beneath the product photo. Now, it’s all I see. And let me be honest: it’s not always stellar.

Reading bad copy taught me to see why it was bad and steer my own voice, or that of my clients and employers, away from that. Was it too wordy? Too lengthy? Too vague? All of the above, my friend.

7. Read Out Loud

My mother always said to write like I talked. Luckily, I consider myself a somewhat articulate human being. Otherwise, I’d be headed down a much different career path. When working through a rough patch of copy, read it out loud. You’ll catch yourself stumbling over certain words or subconsciously altering the text to read it more naturally. Plus side? You might spot your typos, too.

8. Bring Simon To The Party

When I first tuned in to American Idol, I grumbled inside my head every time Simon Cowell told some sweet little pop princess that she sucked. Where was his heart, right? But then, when they took the dirt he dished and served up something spectacular the next week or landed a record deal down the road, I realized he was a necessary component of the creative process.

If you’re staring at your own blog post or article and wishing it’d just be done, please don’t hit publish on that sucker. You’re the first blockade in the combat against tired and drab writing, and you owe it to yourself to only put out there what you absolutely freaking adore.

9. Dish Out A Few Flavors

Studies have shown that we cannot choose when given too many choices (of ice cream flavors, of t-shirt colors, of french fry cuts). We’re also not going to be too thrilled if the alternative is one scoop of vanilla with nothing on it. Even if you withhold the sprinkles, at least give us chocolate and mixed, right?

But vanilla bean tastes good when you don’t know about chocolate.

That’s what it feels like when you write one version one time of your headline. Or your About page. Or your mission statement. Or your Twitter bio.

You have nothing to compare it to. Don’t feel like you have to write two entirely different white papers or project proposals but try restructuring or inserting different examples. Play around with word choice or tone. Then step back, print both, and see what grabs you more.

10. Ten Eyes Aren’t Always Better Than Two

The phrase goes something like this: two heads are better than one. True enough, right?

But too many opinions and edits can, on occasion, dilute your message, muddy the voice, and alter the end result enough to actually hurt rather than help. You might end up with one long-winded, stiff paragraph and another quick, choppy section.

If you’re working with a team, make sure you’re all on the same page about what the message is (especially if it’s not evident in the first draft) and return to that, always, when you make changes.

11. Let Experts Sit In Your Inbox

I’m a newsletter fiend and have no shame in admitting that. If I find a solid website on copywriting or email campaigns or social media marketing, and there’s a free white paper download with an email subscription or a 20-message drip campaign on marketing for smart people, I sign up. And then, I read them. Over breakfast, between scoops of cereal. At night, after a long day at work. While folding laundry on a Saturday afternoon.

I digest the lessons, try to implement them, and save the best ones in folders for future reference. Free knowledge about best practices? Yes, please.

12. Don’t Write For Grandma

My grandmother loves me. She’s small but Italian, so affection is not something she shies from. Instead, her comments are often about how she wishes she could find the right words like I can. She’s a motivator for sure, but when you’re writing, you’ve got to write for the toughest person in the room and make them want to advocate for you.

One of the best pieces of marketing communications advice I ever received was to write for one person — your brand doesn’t want to attract everyone and by pretending your target audience is the entire human race, you’re bound to water down your verbiage to encompass us all.

Find your ideal customer or advocate and write solely to them. Just make sure the caliber exceeds your grandma’s unconditional love-driven expectations.