The first episode of the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary Hemingway reveals where Ernest Hemingway’s famous writing style originated. Before the Nobel Prize-Winner wrote short stories and novels, he worked as a Kansas City Star reporter. The Star introduced Hemingway to the Star Copy Style, writing guidelines he used throughout his career.
Below are five of these guidelines and how they can help you write better cover letters.
1. “Use short sentences.”
There’s nothing wrong with short sentences. They’re usually clearer than long sentences and easier to read. You might think long sentences make you sound smart. They don’t. What they might make you sound like is confused.
Hemingway aimed for clarity and brevity when writing his fiction and nonfiction. Follow Hemingway’s lead and aim for the same when writing your cover letters. Recruiters and hiring managers are busy people. They’ll be thrilled to come across clear and brief cover letters.
If writing short sentences doesn’t come naturally, try this: When editing your cover letter, search for sentences that can be split into two. If you find any, split them and reread your letter. Then ask yourself: Does the letter sound clearer that way? Stronger? Chances are the answers will be “yes.”
2. “Use vigorous English.”
Vigorous means “strong, healthy, and full of energy.” It’s important to use vigorous verbs in your cover letter. You want to show what you’ve accomplished, and you want to show confidence. Use strong and energetic verbs like managed, led, produced, completed, spearheaded, improved, increased, established, enacted, and exceeded.
You also want to write with vigor. You do this by having a solid grasp of what you want to write about. This allows you to write clearly and exactly about your subject matter. In the case of your cover letter, this means having a strong understanding of the requirements of the position you’re applying for and how your background, skills, and experience fit those requirements.
Once you’ve completed your research and understand how to position yourself for the role, only then can you begin to write your cover letter—not a second earlier.
3. “Be positive, not negative.”
This rule aims to get writers to describe what a thing is, not what it isn’t. For example, this is positive: “It was a small boat.” This is negative: “The boat wasn’t very big.”
Applying this to cover letter writing, write about what you are and have done, not about what you haven’t done and aren’t. For example, this sentence is positive: “I’ve written four New York Times Bestsellers.” And this sentence is negative: “I’ve never written a book that wasn’t on the New York Times Bestseller list.”
These two sentences might mean similar things, but there’s a difference. And that difference will be picked up by your reader, and you’ll come across as a weaker writer and weaker candidate.
4. “Eliminate every superfluous word.”
In almost every sentence you write, you’ll likely find a word or two that you can cut to make the sentence better, or find a way to express the same idea with fewer words. For example, the previous sentence could be shortened to: You can edit nearly every sentence you write to make it clearer or more concise.
The original sentence used 138 letters. The edited sentence used 66. That’s more than 50 percent shorter. That’s a big difference to a reader who reads hundreds of cover letters a day.
Read your cover letters like someone else wrote them. Read them like a detective. Challenge yourself. Ask yourself: Is there a way to make each sentence shorter, more concise, clearer? If you can find those ways, your cover letters will be better for it.
5. “Avoid the use of adjectives.”
Nouns and verbs ruled Hemingway’s writing. People, places, and things were king. He used adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Follow Hemingway’s lead and try to avoid them.
Adjectives like “very,” “extremely,” and “highly” weaken your writing. It might sound counterintuitive, but “I am goal-oriented” and “I am detail-oriented” are stronger sentences than “I am very goal-oriented” and “I am highly detail-oriented.” Plus, they’re shorter and easier to read.
Adverbs like “consistently,” “definitely,” and “currently” (a cover letter favorite) are also unnecessary. Cut them. Your writing will be stronger and more concise without them. For example, the phrases “I'm interested in” and “I work as” beat “I'm definitely interested in” and “I'm currently working as.”
Here’s an example of a common sentence found in cover letters: “With my strong management skills in accounting, marketing, and international business, combined with my highly diverse technical background in computers and software applications, I am extremely confident in my ability to make a strong positive contribution to your organization.”
With the Star Copy Style in mind, here’s an edited version: “I’m confident that my management skills and technical background will enable me to contribute to your team.” Editing further: “I’m confident that my skills and background will enable me to contribute to your team.”
Try several versions of sentences until they strike the right note (to your ear). In the end, maybe you decide your sentence needs an adjective or adverb. That’s okay. But first, cut them out. See how your sentence sounds without them. Then decide.
A final note
When Hemingway experienced writer’s block, he used this mantra: “Begin with one true sentence.” This wasn’t a rule from the Star Copy Style but had its origins in it. The Star encouraged writers to “write the truth.” And that’s something Hemingway aimed to do in his writing (even in his fiction).
So, if you find yourself stuck when writing your cover letters, use Hemingway’s mantra. Write one true sentence. Write one true sentence describing your experience, skills, or background. Once you do that, you’ll likely find that the rest of your letter will follow.
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