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by Vault Careers | April 05, 2016


Once you have the cover letter basics down—you generally know what to include in a cover letter, what not to include, how long it should be, what it's used for, who reads it, how you should address it, how you should sign off—then you're ready for some specific writing advice that will make your cover letter the best it can be. To that end, here are six tips to get you started writing, through the rough patches, and across the cover letter finish line. 

1. Tackle the outline and easy parts first. 

Before you begin, make some notes about what you want to highlight. Which of your accomplishments best position you for the particular job? What aspects of your personality do you want to express? Instead of trying to craft the perfect letter the moment you start to type, make some notes first. And once you have your notes, and it comes time to begin writing, it can then be helpful to start with the easier parts first. There's no rule that you have to write the letter in the order that it's read. If the closing line comes more naturally to you, start with that. If the body of the letter seems easiest, then begin there. Sometimes it helps get ideas flowing just to fill in the name of the addressee and company. 

2. Unblock yourself. 

If notes aren't even coming to you, and you find yourself really stuck with cover letter writer's block, try a freewrite. Using this technique, you just start writing. It doesn't matter what comes out; you can pull out the good stuff and trash the bad stuff later. Just start writing anything that comes to you. As you write, good ideas will come to you as you go along. And try to ignore that internal voice that wants everything to come out perfectly the first time. Freewriting helps you put your thoughts on paper. The point of this exercise is to get your brain moving and get something on the page. It might also help reduce many anxieties because you'll be taking action rather than just worrying. When you're done, review what you have and pull out the best material. You can then go through your letter point by point, rewording as necessary. Remember that it may take a few drafts before you get your wording just the way you want it. 

Alternatively, if you're more comfortable communicating orally than in writing, try recording yourself saying what you want to include in the letter. You can then play back what you said and type it out. When you're done, rearrange and reword as needed. 

3. Back it up. 

You say you're skilled at obtaining contracts. Great. Now prove it. When writing your letters, don't simply state what you're good at. Show it. Give examples. Mine your past and come up with every possible example you can think of where you used the skills you claim to have. Make a list, then choose the best ones to include in your letter. If you have a lot to choose from, keep the list so you can use different examples with each subsequent letter you send to a company. 

4. Hone your tone. 

Both your personality and the position you're applying for will factor into the tone you use in your cover letter. Someone applying for a demanding sales position would be wise to use a more assertive tone in their letter than someone applying for a social services position in a long-term healthcare facility. You can use these factors to your advantage by determining what you want your reader to know about you. Are you an outgoing, strong personality who is not afraid of cold calling prospects? Do you convey a warm and comforting tone, showing an ability to communicate with families who are facing difficult end-of-life decisions? What can you demonstrate through your personality and attitude that can help polish your first impression? 

Take the time to experiment with how you write your letter and how you approach your prospective employer. Ask a few friends or colleagues (as appropriate) to read the letter. What impression do they get from your presentation? Take notes and make adjustments until your readers are left with the impression you want to leave. 

5. Cut cut cut. 

No matter what format you decide to use for your cover letter, keep your writing tight and concise. Wherever possible, cut, cut, and cut some more. Whenever possible, use one word instead of two or more. For example, instead of writing "in an accurate manner," write "accurately." Instead of "due to the fact that," write "because." Use active phasing as much as possible. Also focus on shorter words instead of longer ones. Instead of "utilize," write "use." Don't try to impress your reader by scouring the thesaurus for words you think will make you sound smarter. You'll only end up with a jumble of words that confuses your reader (if your reader stays with your letter long enough to get confused). Your letter is more likely to be skimmed than thoroughly read, so you'll lose your reader if you opt for lengthy, perplexing, and superfluous declarations.

6. Write now, edit later.

It can be helpful to wait a fair amount of time after you've written your first draft until you edit. Even leaving the writing for a few hours or, better, overnight can give your mind a chance to rest. You never know when the right wording might come to you.

This post was adapted from the new The Vault Guide to Resumes and Job-Hunting Skills.

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