Career Transitions

Turning chaos into careers.

Writing Anxiety and the Job Search

Conquer your writing fears before they sabotage your job search.

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Every now and then I pause when reviewing cover letters and resumes from my clients, students, or job candidates, and wonder: have they ever read an article, website, or book about how to write a cover letter or resume? The mistakes they make are so elementary, so basic, that they defy common sense.

You would think that someone who really wants a job would take the time to make sure they spell the company's name correctly, not start their letter "Dear Sir", or lead with inappropriate personal information such as "I've been teaching Sunday school for the past five years" for a position which has nothing to do with teaching, church, or working with children.

Even in a higher education setting where many job candidates have advanced degrees, and presumably some experience with writing and research, I can easily eliminate 80% of the candidates for positions in my office due to poorly written cover letters and resumes.

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I thought about writing a post about what should be in a good cover letter or resume, but do we really need that? Good advice abounds. Go here for some great advice: Quint Careers and JobStar.

So what's the deal? Are people too lazy to look up the proper way to write a resume or cover letter? Don't they care about finding a job? Don't they think good writing is important in the job search? That may describe some people, but I've worked with enough committed career seekers to know that this isn't the issue. I spoke with a career coach in my office, Neil Johnson, who works every day with job seekers who stumble in the writing process. He said he sees a lot of fear holding people back. Fear of rejection. Fear of not doing a good job. Fear of writing in general. And I think he's right.

So what is writing anxiety and how does it show up in the job search? Writing anxiety is simply a fear of writing-- which can take on many behaviors and attitudes including:

  • Procrastinating or putting off writing a cover letter or resume
  • Fear of or avoiding researching information about cover letter writing or the place to which you're applying
  • Rushing through the process too quickly to get away from the stress
  • Fear of rejection or other negative outcome
  • Lack of confidence in your writing ability
  • Writer's block-- that dreaded blank computer screen or paper
  • Fear of writer's block that keeps you from even sitting down at the computer
  • A pessimistic attitude about the value of writing ("what's the use-- I won't get hired anyway")

If any of these traits sound like you, you might just have discovered a key challenge you're facing in the job search. Because, let's face it: if you're afraid of a task you're less likely to do it-- and certainly less likely to do it well. Even after you face the avoidance demon and sit down to write a cover letter, if you have writing anxiety you are more likely to do it with a "just get this over with" attitude. And that's what I see in a lot of cover letters that tank someone's job search.

Writing anxiety related to the job search may be situational in nature: you may be perfectly comfortable writing in other settings or for other purposes, but you just don't know the special rules and techniques that apply to cover letters and resumes. You might just be inexperienced at writing cover letters: I have noticed that the some of the weakest cover letters tend to come from people who haven't had to search for a job in awhile.

So consider your feelings about writing. Is writing something that is comfortable for you? Are you confident in your writing abilities generally? Have you received positive feedback about your writing in other settings? In that case, your anxiety may simply be based on a lack of knowledge about writing for the job search. This could be an issue easily resolved by doing some basic research and following the tips in this blog post.

On the other hand, is writing generally something you avoid? Have you found it challenging in the past? Have you received negative feedback from previous writing attempts? Do you find writing boring or too hard? Do you have strong perfectionistic standards that you apply to writing? Are you fearful of rejection? In this case, you may have developed writing anxiety which will require more steps to overcome. And overcoming your writing anxiety is essential to a good job search, because strong writing skills are invaluable in the job search. I think they're so important I devoted two chapters in my book to the topic.

A little anxiety in the job search process can be a good thing. It can give you the energy and the motivation needed to move forward in the process. It can push you to prepare better for interviews, take more time to proofread your writing, and otherwise help you be your best. In a way, anxiety says that you care. You care about the outcome; that is, you want to write a good letter. You would like to get the job. And you can use that aspect of anxiety to motivate yourself.

On the other hand, too much anxiety can wear you down, leading to procrastination, perfectionism, and other habits that will prevent you from making the best effort.

So start by examining your level of anxiety particularly as it relates to writing a cover letter or resume. On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being no fears at all, to 10 being paralyzed by fear--- where would rank your writing anxiety? Do you think your level of anxiety is helping or hurting you? Is it providing motivation and keeping you diligent in the writing process or is it immobilizing you? Bottom line: are you avoiding writing tasks because of it?

One common myth about writing is that it's a special skill or talent limited to the highly creative, the very smart, or the uniquely gifted person. While there are many gifted writers out there, they would be the first to tell you that mostly writing is a craft and hard work. It is a skill that anyone can learn and anyone can improve through simple practice and desire. A friend of mine volunteers at local prisons conducting writing sessions. The prisoners are not professional writers by any stretch of the imagination: many have very little education and no writing training. And yet, given the opportunity and some good writing prompts, they write compelling and moving stories about their lives.

In future posts, I will offer some specific cover letter writing advice as well as share my SWOTmapping system for outlining and preparing a cover letter. In the meantime, here are 8 tips for working with and overcoming your writing anxiety:

1. Know that cover letters and resumes are a unique style of writing. It's normal to find them challenging at first. Don't assume that you should know how to write them just because you're a good writer otherwise. You aren't expected to be an expert on them-- but you need to be if you want a job. Seek out great examples and emulate them. Note: do not copy sentences word-for-word from templates or books-- employers can spot those fake sentences a mile away. And they see them on every other cover letter they receive.

2. Instead of avoiding writing, seek out opportunities to improve your writing generally. Look for local writing groups, job search clubs, informal classes or writing institutes, and other ways to develop your skills. This will build your confidence-- and as your confidence grows your anxiety will decrease.

3. Notice the thoughts running through your mind as you try to write. Focus on the thoughts that are comforting and helpful and move you forward-- not the ones that hold you back. Worrying holds you back. Researching cover letter writing moves you forward. One of my favorite books for helping to calm your writer's mind is Eric Maisel's "Write Mind."  Also, If mild/moderate anxiety or depression is an issue for you, check out Self-Coaching: The Powerful Program to Beat Anxiety & Depression by Joseph J. Luciani for some great ideas for overcoming your worrying habit. It's an excellent guide for changing your way of thinking.

4. If you focus on a possible negative outcome (rejection) to your writing, you will understandably feel more anxious. For most people, fear is not the best motivator. Instead, try to focus on communicating and connecting with your reader. How can you include information the reader will be interested in and inspire him//her to want to meet you? How can you use this letter to ultimately develop a relationship with an employer?

5. Don't try to do this alone. Good writing generally results from collaboration-- whether you're a professional writer with a good editor or a student with a teacher. Ask other people to read your cover letters and resume before you send them out. Ask them what they like about your letter-- and what they wish you would add or remove. Ask them for ideas to really help sell you in the search. (For help with branding see this post.) It's particularly helpful if you choose people who see cover letters regularly or who know about marketing.

6. Take advantage of the great resources available online and in books. Even if you live in a lighthouse with no one around to give you feedback on your writing, you can find lots of resources (and even online writing groups!) on the internet. Try checking out the writing assistance available for free online from many colleges and universities. Most schools have writing centers which post articles and helpful information about writing. Here are three of my favorites: The University of North Carolina at Chapel HillThe University of Richmond; and Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab).

7. Writing is a process, not an end point. You are constantly learning and improving. You will revise your writing, so consider everything a draft. Don't aim for perfection out of the starting gate. In fact, try writing some really bad sentences first just to get them out of the way. 

8. If fear of rejection is holding you back, consider applying for a few jobs you know you won't get. Craft the absolute best resume and cover letter you can, knowing that you don't have to worry about being rejected. Your goal really isn't to get THAT job-- your goal is to create the best possible letter that you can revise and use again. Taking the pressure off the outcome off can be a great way to free up your writing.

(By the way, tip #8 worked for me when I was seeking an agent. I had procrastinated on writing my book query for all the usual reasons: it was a novel form of writing and I wasn't sure exactly how to do it. And all my writing demons kicked in-- perfectionism, anxiety, fear of rejection, laziness, etc. One day I just decided to send an email query to a very busy agent I knew would reject me-- her website indicated she hadn't taken on a new client in two years and wasn't seeking new clients. My goal was just to get the query done so I could later send it on to other agents. Sending it to someone I knew would reject it made it easier to write-- although I still made sure I wrote the best query I could. And here's the funny ending: the "busy" agent called me two days later and asked me to send my book proposal. I never had to write another query.)

Taking the time to overcome your writing anxiety-- and producing the best possible cover letters and resumes-- will greatly improve your chances for success in the job market. 

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Katharine Brooks, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of the Office of Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University. She is the author of You Majored in What?

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