Career Transitions

Turning chaos into careers.

Edit Your Cover Letter Like a Pro

"There is no great writing, only great rewriting." -Justice Brandeis

So you’ve written the dreaded cover letter. (You haven’t? Here's a strategic method for creating your letter.)  And, of course, you’ve done all the right things to keep it from being a generic form letter. You have addressed the letter to a person, not “to whom it may concern.” You have clearly identified the specific position and organization to which you’re applying. You have focused on your talents that are most relevant to the position. You have spell-checked your letter and double-checked the name of the organization and the name of the person to whom you are writing. And if you’re applying for a position in a geographic area more than two hours beyond your current home, you have explained why you want to work in that area and how you plan to handle the commute or the move.

Bravo. Those actions will put your letter ahead of 90% of all job applicants. What will make your letter even better? Editing and rewriting. Vladimir Nabokov once wrote, "I have rewritten--often several times--every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers." Even if you think you've written the perfect cover letter, it's time to get out your eraser.  Strong editing and rewriting can mean the difference between the “keep” pile and the shredder.

Here are 12 suggestions for editing your cover letter like a pro:

1. Walk away. Get some mental space from your letter. Watch TV, walk the dog, or eat dinner-- just be sure to set a time to return to the letter. A two-hour break is fine; a one-week break is too long.

2. Print your letter and read it out loud. As you read it, use a pen to check places that aren’t working. Did you stumble on a phrase that seems awkward or out of place? Is a sentence too long? Does the letter flow in a logical manner? Did you catch a spelling error? Don’t stop to correct anything until you finish reading the whole letter.

3. Try reducing the letter by 25%. What words can you remove from a sentence? What sentences are redundant? Strive for clarity, not complexity. Be ruthless. If a word, sentence, or paragraph doesn’t support your goal or isn't essential, delete it.

4. Read the letter for tone. Have you kept it professional and positive? Look for the words “no” or “not” and other negative phrasing. “I completed the project with no mistakes” becomes “I completed the project seamlessly.” Remove phrases that are too cute or clever. Humor, if applied at all, needs a delicate touch.

5. Don’t use words too big for your subject, to quote C.S. Lewis. If you’re using words you don’t normally use, ask yourself why. Are you trying to impress the reader? While you want to be articulate, using words that others have to look up in a dictionary might backfire. At the very least, make sure you’re using words properly. I received a cover letter from a candidate who said she had been “carousing” my office’s website. I suspect she meant “perusing.” If she had used her word processor’s thesaurus, this applicant would have quickly learned that the synonym for carousing is partying. People seldom party at my website.

6. Remove distracting punctuation or unnecessary emphasis. Have you placed too many words in italics or quotes? Do they need to be emphasized? Use exclamation points sparingly.

7. Double-check homonyms like “there”, “their”, and “they’re” or "it's" and "its." Your spellchecker may not catch them. When in doubt, look them up.

8. Use specific language. Add numbers where appropriate and powerful. If you raised funds or made a profit, state the amount. Substitute numbers for words like “large.” You may be adding words, but the overall content will be more powerful.

9. Catch sentences which use a passive voice. “The project was completed on time” is passive; “I completed the project on time” is active and therefore stronger. Look for “was” and “were” followed by a verb ending in “ed.” That’s usually a clue that you may be writing in a passive voice.

10. Vary your sentence structure. Use short and long sentences.  Note how you begin your sentences.  Are you beginning too many with “I”? An English professor once told my class that the phrase “There is…” starts you on the road to writing hell. Sentences beginning with “there is” or “there are” seldom end well.

11. Review the overall layout of the letter. Is there a balance between print and white space? Are the paragraphs balanced—or do you have several short two-sentence paragraphs and then one long paragraph? Try adjusting your paragraphs to make them more even in length as appropriate.

12. Do you have any orphans? Orphans are one or two words on the last line of the paragraph. They are taking up valuable real estate on your page. Try editing the sentences to pull the orphan back into the body of the paragraph.

One final suggestion: ask a friend to read your letter. Another pair of eyes might catch something you missed.

©2012 Katharine S. Brooks. All rights reserved. Find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo credit: iStock Photos

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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