As a freelance writer, letters of inquiry are a staple fact of life. The practice of writing cover letters to prospective clients, for job applications and to potential publishers has plagued me for the entirety of my professional career. The most valuable lessons I have learnt about writing cover letters have come from being on the receiving end of them, though. If you ever want to truly improve your letter-writing skills, advertise a job opportunity and take heed of the replies you receive. Here’s five of the most heinous crimes I’ve encountered in letters sent to me:
1. Asking for details that are already available
Asking questions in a cover letter was one of the hooks I suggested in my earlier article, as a component of good letter writing. But if you do ask something, make sure the information isn’t already clearly available. To take job applications as an example, asking what your responsibilities, hours or wage will be when they are already stated in the job description is a sure way to tell the recipient you haven’t read the description properly. Make sure your questions are necessary and relevant. When I advertised for a volunteer editor position on a magazine, one applicant asked how much it paid. At that point it didn’t matter what his experience or references might have said, that was an excellent practical demonstration that he did not have the skills we were looking for.
2. Providing irrelevant information
Elaborating too much on your experience will bore the reader and detract from the key points you want to make. Being concise is a must for a cover letter. It has to capture the recipient’s attention with sharp details. Giving too much detail is also a sure sign that a letter has come from a template. A letter giving a prospect’s life history tells you one over-arching story: this letter was not written for you.
Example: an applicant for a writer position gave me precisely laid out details of his work in various accountancy offices and the numerous qualifications these entailed. Very grandiosely written, but nothing to do with me.
3. Being too formal
When dealing with the internet, the medium most writing now takes, writing a business letter is less formal than previously demanded. Emails rarely take the form of a print letter, so if you write in an overly formal style it stands out as stiff and artificial. It should be polite and respectful, but too many airs and graces can make you sound pompous or fake. I’ve used this one before, but if you don’t want the recipient to think you’re this gentleman, don’t write like him:
4. Being too informal
Using colloquialisms, bringing up irrelevant personal details (anything that is not business-related) and being too friendly or familiar are all things I’ve encountered in cover letters. One prospective employee jovially explained her interest in dog shows as part of a media research application (with fun exclamation marks to boot). Writing a business letter as a friendly note shows a lack of respect for the reader and the business prospect.
Where do you find the balance? That will depend on your recipient. In some cases extremely formal language will be necessary, and in others friendly banter will be welcomed. Taking the time to ensure your letter is fittingly formal to the task at hand is a good indicator to the recipient that you understand and care about their business.
5. Failing to make it personal
This is the crux of why all the previous points ring alarm bells in cover letters. When the letter is not addressed to the reader directly, and the content isn’t linked to the recipient in a meaningful way, it looks generic, and is unlikely to inspire a connection or response. If you’re working from templates, make sure they never look like templates. Do your research and tell the reader what they need to know; a generic sales pitch will receive about the same amount of attention that you put into it. Address the letter to the person, and make sure the text shows you are dealing with them for specific reasons – either because you have chosen them, or because you can explain why you are the right person for them.