Write a killer job application letter

Job letters – or the cover letters attached to your resume or CV – are your first impression with a potential employer. If it isn’t clear, specific, and well-written (read that – no spelling, punctuation, or other sentence-level mistakes), you won’t get a call. In fact, if the letter doesn’t kill the employer’s doubt, she may not even look at your resume.

Here’s how to write a job application letter that will make you competitive, as long as your credentials and experience fit the position and fit what the employer wants.

1. Customize. Research the organization and try to include some statements that you are not only aware of the job details, but also have some knowledge about the company or department. From a friend who has a background in business and is currently working on her Ph.D.: “Know about the company-it’s mission, values, etc. Demonstrate that knowledge in your letter.” For instance, if you do a Google search for the organization (hey, they’re Googling you, why not turn the tables and use this strategy to your advantage?) and discover that they recently won an award for their creative advertising campaign for robotic widgets, then mention that in your letter. But mention this tidbit in a way that connects YOU to THEM. Such as – “I was so impressed with your robotic widget award because this shows innovation and growth; just the sort of company I’m looking to join. My work in LED-driven widgets would expand the capacity of your robotic widgets and may lower the cost to the consumer.” You get the point. Some sections of your letter will be the same, but try to avoid sending a wholesale form letter. Make an effort to customize each letter as much as possible.

2. Embrace brevity. According to one of my colleagues, who is a technical writer for a corporation, “Keep it to no more than one-page, single-spaced. No one needs the Song of Myself.” Now, as I am an academic and know that other academics may be reading this, here is a reminder from one of my academic colleagues related to brevity: “If it’s academic, the 1 page rule doesn’t apply (especially if they’re not asking for a separate teaching / research statement).” This leads me to number three.

3. Know your audience. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you understand the requirements and expectations for your industry or field. If you do not, or if you are trying to enter a field that is new to you, use your network to find someone who can advise you about the specific expectations for letters in THAT industry. Otherwise, your potential reviewer won’t make it past sentence one. Know who you are writing to and what they expect to see – craft your letter accordingly, but even with longer letters, don’t give them “the Song of Myself.” Stick to the facts – credentials, experience, and only the details that are absolutely necessary and relevant to showcasing your readiness for THIS job.

4. Say why. From my tech writer friend, “You have to say why the job is interesting/the opportunity you want, and you have to explain what you’re bringing to the table. List those key strengths specifically.”

5. No mistakes. Correct spelling, punctuation, grammar (think standard American English, formal, error-free construction). Mistakes of this nature can be fatal. Yes, I know you see typos and spelling errors and misplaced commas all the time in newspapers, magazines, and on the web. Doesn’t matter. Your job letter should be PERFECT. Or damn near. You don’t have to be perfect, but this letter does or it may end up in the shredder, along with your chances.

6. Read the job ad and the requirements listed. From a friend working at a university: “My advice would be to make sure you read the position and requirements and talk about how you meet those requirements. It doesn’t have to be a direct statement, for example if the job requires an MS or PhD, in the letter you can say something like “while in graduate school..” You don’t have to write about all the requirements, but the obvious ones for that job should be addressed. It’s nice to see if someone knows what they are getting into and have the background for it.” And from a different colleague at a library: “Read the job ad and address what they are asking for in your letter. How do you fit what they want in degrees, skills, and experience? Address as many as you can or all of the criteria for a better chance at the next step. OH, and do it a one-page letter if at all possible.”

7. Highlight the best bits. From my Ph.D. -seeking friend: “Take the most important (read: impressive and relevant) points from your resume and discuss them in the cover letter. Connect your skills to the company’s needs. Tell them how you will benefit them!!” Instead of narrating your entire resume, focus on the highlights. I just had to write a bullet-point list executive summary for my tenure and promotion binders. My letter is 13 pages. My resume is five pages. And my executive summary is one single page with bullets of the most impressive bits in brief. When you think about what belongs in a job application letter, think about creating your own bullet point highlight list and focus on those facts in the letter.

8. Be a person. From a friend at a college in Atlanta: “Aside from echoing the advice about doing your research on the job and what your employer is about, I think it’s also important to highlight your own personality specifically IN RELATION TO the job. When I write cover letters, I really try to think about myself as a person – not just my skillset, but also my interests, my passions, and how they would fit into what a particular job environment seems to be offering. I think it’s important to show a prospective employer that you’re not just qualified for the job, but also someone who is excited about the prospect of being hired at a particular company/school/whatever. I suppose going along with that would be the advice to carefully consider which jobs you apply for, and only apply for ones where you feel you could really apply yourself and really put your passion into it, but I know that’s not always possible when you need to put food on the table. Practical advice in that department would be to envision how, even if this isn’t your ideal job, you could bring your energy to the table in productive ways, and tell your prospective employer about it.”

9. Say thank you. The final statement of your letter should thank the person for his/her/hir time and consideration. Politeness and courteousness should not be underestimated. Remember that this is the first impression you make with a potential employer. You want the person or hiring committee to come away from your letter feeling confident that you are not only qualified for the position, but also a decent human being with passion and enthusiasm, who understands the job, the company, and the conventions of civil discourse.

*Thank you to my friends and colleagues who responded to my crowdsource request and provided such excellent insights and advice.*

Midweek Writing Prompt: Forgiving Failures (10/15/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! :)


 

Writing Prompt: Forgiving Failures

Previous writing prompts have asked you to create lists of positive action or negative action. This time, your opening words are simple:

I forgive myself for…

Fill out the rest of the statement. Repeat the “I forgive myself” phrase as many times as you need to. The sentences may be short or long and involved. Be honest. Be raw. Be specific. Be relentless and dig deep. Dredge up your silliest mistakes and your most terrible acts and forgive yourself in writing.

You may find yourself feeling forgiveness as a result, or may strike upon an idea to expand into a story. Either way, be brave and give this a try. Trust the process. See what happens.

So you want to be a freelance writer

Some of you may not know this unless you’ve really examined the end of my CV, or know me well in person: I was a freelance writer and journalist for ten years prior to earning my MA and Ph.D. and becoming a professor of writing. I meet people all the time at conferences, in workshops, and in my classes who want to be freelance writers. There is a certain glamour and gravitas to the idea of not only working for yourself, but also making your own schedule, writing only the stories you choose to write about, and meeting all sorts of interesting people, and traveling around the country reporting on all manner of events and activities.

Yes. I know. I had those same thoughts when I decided to take the leap out of ad agency media buying into the full-time freelance life in 1996. As you already know I’m about to burst some bubbles, let’s start with the good news:

I did meet and interview lots of interesting people, from senators and CEOs and artists to city workers and fellow writers and chefs.

I also traveled regionally and wrote reviews of bed and breakfast inns, restaurants, and local bands.

My skills as an interviewer, writer, reporter, editor, researcher, photographer, and idea-generator improved exponentially in the ten years I worked at this career. I was offered no less than three full time positions making a lot more money (and benefits), but rejected them all because I wasn’t ready to leave the freelance life.

There is a great deal of freedom in being a freelance writer. You DO make ALL of your own choices. You also do all of your own billing and must police your own progress, even when you’re feeling tired and unmotivated. You do not have a boss standing over your shoulder, which is a delightfully liberating sensation….but the flip side is that you are now solely responsible for your own productivity and money-making. You only make money when you are writing – there is no slacking. No hours on Facebook chatting with friends. No “killing time at work” before happy hour. If you aren’t pitching ideas to editors, interviewing subjects, and writing those assigned pieces, you won’t get paid. And if you don’t get paid, your rent and electric bill and cable and phone won’t get paid. And those companies don’t care if you were tired and unmotivated last week.

As a freelancer, you are running a business and must treat it that way if you want to be successful. You must schedule things. Plan months in advance the stories that you will produce for different publications. Keep appointments. Show up on time. Learn to navigate innumerable personalities and expectations – from interview subjects to editors to people who actively treat you like a second-class plebeian. Cold call all sorts of people – editors, possible interview subjects, surly senators who challenge your knowledge of a particular piece of legislation. Take it all with that proverbial grain of salt while swallowing your indignation. You will learn patience. You will learn that people who ask you to do work sometimes won’t pay you per the original agreement. You will learn legal parlance and how to write a threatening collection letter without sounding threatening.

You will wonder what happened to the glamour. You will feel no gravitas. You will watch your bank account shrink and grow sporadically, which can be anxiety-inducing.

All this said, I don’t regret spending ten years being a professional freelance writer because of the valuable lessons and skills that I learned. I have taken this knowledge with me into my professorial career and other life events. The knowledge serves me well.

If you decide to leap, I wish you the best of luck. The dividends from freelancing can be monumental, but they will not primarily be financial. Accept this and you will thrive and love it the way I did.

Resurrecting dead stories

If you’re like me, you have a story or two, or a series of poems, or a novel, or even a scholarly article that has been relegated to the dustbin of your productivity. These are the pieces that have been through the publisher or editor rounds at so many places you’ve lost count and received nothing but rejections. After so many disheartening “no” responses, you gave up on it.

You decided that the piece just wasn’t working and wasn’t worth saving, or you couldn’t see or feel a solution, so you shelved it or stuffed it into a folder inside a milk crate at the back of a closet, buried, forgotten.

Remember that piece?

Time to dig it up, resuscitate it, and  breathe new life into its sad, desiccated remains.

Dust off the document and read through it. Find the spark, the moment, the idea, even a few great sentences, phrases, or scenes to save. Using only the best pieces of the former whole, start again. Create a new story with the skeleton of the past failed piece.

Resurrecting the stories that we’ve given up on can be invigorating. Going through this process also allows us to heal that former wound and think our way into a potentially terrific story. After all, we’re all better writers now than we were twenty years ago, ten years ago, one year ago. Chances are good that there is something worth saving in that initial attempt – have faith in your former self.

Revisiting material that we think is dead honors our story as writers. We had something valuable to say at that point in the past – it is still valuable and is still part of our whole writing story…worth revisiting – we wrote it!

So this week, go digging to discover a new beginning. :)

Midweek Writing Prompt: Scent memory (10/8/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! :)


 

Writing Prompt: Scent memory

This prompt involves action. Go find a park, a field, a forest, a trail, a path, and spend an hour there. No phone, no music, no other person or pet with you. Just you, the scent of nature, your thoughts, pen and notebook (go old school for this one). Inhale deeply, observe closely, and allow your mind to wander. Focus on the smells of the place – decaying leaves, fresh cut grass, moist earth, fragrant pines or flowers, manure. What do those scents remind you of? Do any feel particularly familiar? If so, why? Where have you encountered that scent before?

Start writing. See what happens. You may be pleasantly surprised. :)

 

 

The value of daydreaming

Would you like to feel instantly refreshed?

Try daydreaming.

For as much as we complain about how kids’ lives are so overbooked and overscheduled these days, we would be better served to take a hard look at our own practices. Namely, our tendency, as Americans, to pack our brains so full of tasks, goals, activities, and lists that we lose ourselves and forget how to relax.

If you are like most people, you probably forget how to daydream. When we are very young, we daydreamed all the time. Little kids can sit and stare out a window observing the world, lost in their own thoughts, for minutes at a time. They can play by themselves on the floor in small ways, but you just know they are completely enveloped in their own imaginations.

We need that as adults, too. We are not too old or filled with responsibilities to take a few minutes of time for ourselves, to drift, and meander inside our own thoughts, to dream and be quiet.

When is the last time you quieted your brain?

Two minutes ago was the last time I daydreamed. You?

If you’re like most people, you can’t remember the last time you daydreamed. Let me help you remember how.

Pick a comfortable spot near a window. Doesn’t matter where you are. Can be a coffee shop in a small town, a comfy chair in the library, your office chair overlooking a city scene, a park bench, your dining room.

Now watch. Look out the window and fully engage with what you are seeing. Notice how the fallen leaves create a pattern like footprints on the sidewalk. See the blur of legs and the different types of shoes that walk past – red Keds, brown suede boots, sneakers, paisley pumps. Hear the music and lyrics of the song playing softly in the background of your interior space. Feel the rhythm, the bass, the beat. Hear the voices, but don’t listen to the words. Allow the voices to blend into the background. Focus on one particular spot on the pavement and see each raindrop splash into that spot, creating a circular water shadow that quickly blends into the water collecting on the sidewalk. Notice how the rain is a steady vertical line that intersects beautifully with the horizontal movement of people as they pass before your line of sight.

Allow your vision to go slightly out of focus so that everything takes on a soft blur. Focus on nothing and let your brain rest. This is what it feels like to quiet your mind. To disconnect, even for a few minutes, from the hectic struggles of daily life.

Writers need these quiet moments of brain rest and daydreaming. You will not be aware of the value of daydreaming until you start writing later. Incorporating moments of quiet daydreaming into your daily life will reap imaginative benefits later. You will never see or feel a direct connection. But the connection exists. The value in daydreaming is the space and time that you allow your brain to rest and meander so that it can fire on all cylinders later.

Daydreaming works. It takes very little time. It’s free. And your writing will improve. Start daydreaming today. :)

Revision suggestions: When and how to say no

Defense and flexibility are both important in writing, especially with editors and, for academics, peer reviewers.

Editors and peer reviewers are the gatekeepers. They hold the keys to our publishing potential, so many writers hesitate to question anything they say or protest even the most unreasonable request. They control what we want and the idea of even shyly raising a soft voice in discord to a suggestion seems sacrilegious at the altar of the byline.

This hesitance is ill-conceived and you should re-consider your attitude about it if you resemble my description.

You can say no to an editor. You can also say no to ridiculous requests made by peer reviewers who don’t seem to have read paragraph ten where you explain exactly what they say you didn’t explain. Here’s how.

Most importantly, be flexible. This is vital. You don’t want to approach an editor with a sledgehammer of an attitude and demand that Your Muse Knows Best! Because gatekeeper.

Instead, if you find the suggestions loathesome, step away, have a beer, go walk around your garden, maybe nap. And then return to the revision suggestions with fresh eyes and the aim to narrow that list down to “yes, I can do that no problem,” “yes, I’ll do that but my way,” and “no, I won’t do that because it doesn’t make sense/will ruin the effect I’m striving for/will make me sound stupid, etc.” Honestly, your first list should be huge – the vast majority of editorial and reviewer requests fall into this “no problem” category. Are they sometimes repetitive and frivolous and based on someone else’s personal preference and knowledge? Yes. But who cares? If those changes won’t substantially and negatively impact your work, just do it and stop bellyaching.

The second category will have several things in it. Changes that you are making under some duress. They will be things that you think skews your work in a way you don’t really want. Or, the changes will seem to contradict something you’ve already suggested. Or, stylistically, the changes run counter to what your intentions are. These are the trickiest changes to accept and make. You’ll have to spend some time with each one, deciding whether to add that name where one doesn’t really belong, or use that white male scholar the reviewer wants when you would prefer a non-white female scholar’s voice, etc. I’ll give you an example. I just revised a book chapter for which one of the reviewers asked me to include the works of two white male scholars. The important issue here is the additional scholarly voices, not necessarily who the scholars are. The suggestions were obviously individuals the reviewers were familiar with, but one of my jobs as a scholar is to introduce people like that to the people I prefer to privilege. So, instead of going along with the suggestion 100%, I did add another scholar’s voice to the mix, but it was a female Anishinaabe scholar in order to privilege the Native voice and add more balance to an already male-heavy text. I doubt the editor or reviewers will question my wisdom on this.

Editors like to work with confident writers. And peer reviewers will respect you more if you do most of what they ask and then take a stand on the rest, as you should because you’re the expert, remember? So, make those revisions after careful consideration of what exactly the editor and reviewers are asking of you. Adjust as necessary.

That final category is the easiest list to create and the easiest to dismiss. Notice I used the word dismiss. Whenever you re-submit anything that an editor or reviewers ask you to change, you should always provide a list of the things that you changed (and why, as in my case of using a different scholar than those recommended). And then just don’t mention the items you are ignoring/dismissing. I’ve used this approach for academic work and consumer publications and I have yet to see it fail. You control the narrative when you re-submit, so draw their attention to the elements you want them to see and just don’t mention the other stuff.

See? Easy. :)

 

Midweek Writing Prompt: A New POV (10/1/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! :)


 

Writing Prompt: A New POV (Point of View)

If you are currently working on something – an essay, a story, a poem – rewrite one of the scenes or moments from the point of view of someone else in the story. Change the perspective of that scene and allow it to unfold afresh through another character’s (or creature’s) eyes.

If you want something new, write about your morning or evening routine from your pet’s (or child’s) point of view. Show your routine from your cat’s perspective, or your dog’s, or your hamster’s, or your child’s.

This is a fun one, so go play! :)

 

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