Cover Letters: From Boulder to Stones

An English teacher of mine once taught us that there are only two ways to build any sentence you want to write: you can either say what something is, or you can say what it does. That’s it. The English language has at least a quarter of a million words to work with, and you can still reduce any statement to one of these options.
There is comfort in that simplicity when you are working on a cover letter. As you grope through the field of language, hoping to find that magic combination of words to persuade a prospective employer to look more closely at you, consider the following questions as a useful starting place:
What (or Who) are you?
What do you do?
Of course, it’s not uncommon to react to broad questions like these with ill-defined anxiety. There’s the temptation to to create a broad, generic response (“I can do anything you need me to do!”), which is neither compelling nor effective. It’s a little like trying to lift the giant boulder of your future all at once—the contours of its surface are way too broad for you to be able to grasp it, much less lift it.
So how can you translate that generic impulse into a concrete, coherent narrative? How can you get a prospective employer to enjoy reading your cover letter?
Narrow the questions, and then narrow your answers. Chip away at that boulder until you have smooth stones that fit comfortably in the palm of your hand. In other words, look for vague phrases and make them more specific.
Here are two examples of this principle from creative writers:
Margaret Atwood, in her prose poem “Women’s Novels” rails against the vague language she finds in the worst romance writing. She quotes such a sentence, “She had the startled eyes of a wild bird,” and goes on to ask “Ah, but which one? A screech owl, perhaps, or a cuckoo? It does make a difference.” If you leave your answers vague, you invite your audience to imagine horrors in place of the actual good work you do.
Janet Burroway illustrates how to take a general word and make it progressively more specific in her textbook for beginning creative writers, Imaginative Writing:
Creature is a generalized notion, hard to see except in the vaguest way.  Animal is still vague; four-legged animal is a little more specific; domestic animal a little more; dog narrows the field; mixed-breed Shepherd we can see; old Sammy asleep on the rug, his haunches twitching in his dream brings the dog into sharp focus in our minds.

Though you are neither selling your services as a screech owl, nor as a mixed-breed Shepherd, you can still use this idea when drafting a cover letter.
Start by narrowing your questions:
Who am I?
  • What is my professional identity?
  • What aspect of myself am I trying to market?
What do I do?
  • What do I do well?
  • What can I do well for this employer in this job?
And then experiment with narrowing the phrases you are writing. Seek out broad, boulder language, and polish it into manageable stones.
I’m known for my strong work ethic
  • I complete progress reports ahead of schedule.
I know how to grow a business
  • I combine of networking, social media strategies, and advertising to bring in clients.
I am a good manager
  • I listen to my team and streamline procedures.

You may notice each of the above phrases got longer, but not by much. Concise cover letters are often more effective, so make sure you polish just enough stones to get your point across


Sarah S.

Writing/English Tutor with Berkeley Education & Tutoring Expertise

5+ hours
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