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by By Max Messmer | March 10, 2009


The ability to write well is an important managerial skill at most companies, yet it's only one aspect of fulfilling your job's responsibilities (unless, of course, you write for a living). When searching for a new position, though, writing is a critical talent that will separate the finalists from the also-rans. Perhaps that's why so many candidates find writing resumes, cover letters and other job-search correspondence so intimidating.

There are several keys to successful job-search writing, the most important being common sense. In other words, you must communicate effectively without being inappropriate. This requires an attention to detail and a willingness to make sure your writing is as clear and concise as possible, whether you're structuring a cover letter, thank-you note or tailored resume, as the following advice will illustrate.

The Successful Cover Letter

Cover letters should be more than just wrapping paper for your resume. They should set you apart from other candidates by providing a sense of how you think and your eagerness to work for a specific organization. Most of all, they should give readers a compelling reason to want to see you that embraces both your qualifications and the vitality you can bring to a job.

If your cover letters are to meet this tall order, they must clearly point out your skills, knowledge and track record, and explain how these credentials can make a tangible contribution to a prospective employer.

"Your letter must be job-specific, so respond to each ad accurately," says Carter Giles, a human-resources executive at Front Range Medical Management in Englewood, Colo. If you demonstrate an understanding of the company's current issues, such as a shift in customer demand or the implications of a recent merger, you'll greatly enhance your prospects, he says.

Most cover letters fail in this regard. Too often, candidates focus on what they're looking for (salary, geography, advancement, etc.) and not on how their skills, expertise and past accomplishments can benefit the employer. In job hunting, as in all forms of sales, the focus should be on the customer.

"Most job seekers squander the cover-letter opportunity," says Jill Lynch, a senior corporate marketing specialist at Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco. "The cover letter is a great chance to pique interest and give a sense of your accomplishments and personality."

When writing cover letters, remember to:

  • Address each letter to a specific person, even if you have to make a dozen phone calls to learn the contact's name, its correct spelling and his or her title.

  • Avoid gimmicky openings. It usually isn't a good idea to begin a cover letter with the kind of jazzy opening corporations use in direct-mail pieces. While such openings might attract attention, they often come off as forced, insincere or unintentionally glib. You're better off simply stating in the first paragraph why you're writing and why it's in the reader's best interest to pay attention. For example, "I understand you have a need for senior accountants. I can help, and would like to tell you more about how...."

  • Don't rehash your resume. Focus instead on the two or three qualities that distinguish you most. Try to connect these qualities to the job's key requirements. "Give an example of one successful project -- a mini-case study -- in one paragraph," says Ms. Lynch.

  • Write the way you speak. Important as it is to honor the rules of standard English, it's just as important in cover letters to avoid stiff, bureaucratic jargon. Write to inform, not to impress. (Hint: If you're tempted to use a word in a letter that you wouldn't use in person, replace it with a word that's more conversational.)

  • Use personalized letterhead stationery. "A nice quality bond shows a little more thought and concern about style and presentation," says Ms. Lynch.

  • Incorporate information that reflects your knowledge of the target company: its industry, relevant issues, potential opportunities, etc.

  • Check and recheck every letter you send for typos, bad grammar and spelling mistakes. Find someone, such as a friend or your spouse, who's good at proofreading, and ask that person to review everything you write. If you use a computer (and you should), use the spelling and grammar checkers. These programs aren't foolproof, but they'll catch obvious errors. Also keep a dictionary and usage manual handy.

    It may not seem fair, but usage and grammar mistakes in letters frequently turn off potential employers, regardless of your qualifications. These errors lead people to conclude that if you aren't careful enough to avoid mistakes in your search, you're likely to be careless when performing the job.

The Resume: Just Do It

When drafting your resume, remember its primary purpose: to provide an accurate and succinct account of your qualifications. "Don't waste my time" with confusing correspondence, says Mr. Giles. "I see so many resumes, I don't want to have to dig more than necessary."

The process of writing a strong resume is extremely important. Even if someone else is providing help, you need to do the bulk of the work. Focus on which aspects of your background are likely to capture the interest of a would-be employer. Remember, too, that a resume is only one component of a job search, and spending too much time on it can be counterproductive.

A resume that's illogically organized and written in garbled prose can knock you out of the running. But after a certain point, continuing to polish your document may not improve your chances of being interviewed or hired. "A resume doesn't get you the job," says Ms. Lynch. "It simply gets you in the door."

A good resume should describe, in one or two pages, your specific business and professional experience, plus your career accomplishments, training and education. Do looks count? Yes, but only to the extent that the resume is neat, professional and easy to read. While the writing style is important, don't get bogged down trying to compose in a style that's uncomfortable or forced. What's most critical is that your resume reads clearly.

"Don't mislead us with jargon or industry terminology," says Mr. Giles. "Boom-boom-boom: Make it clear, make it concise."

When preparing a resume, make sure that it:

  • Is one to two pages long and features a simple, uncluttered layout. Use boldface or all-capital letters for headings, and only one typeface. Make sure the left and right margins are at least one inch wide.

  • Only uses a career objective if you're a recent graduate seeking an entry-level position. Otherwise, if you want to mention your objective, do it in your cover letter and make sure it's tailored to the job you're seeking.

  • Uses a summary paragraph, but only if the paragraph isn't loaded with generalities that can just as easily be said about thousands of other people.

  • Is customized. Tailoring a resume to specific industries or jobs is a good idea, and in the age of computers, it's easy to do. If you have time, consider creating a new resume for each company where you apply.

  • Reflects gaps in employment (never lie or try to hide them). If you took three years off to raise your children, for example, explain it in your cover letter, but don't omit dates from your resume in hopes that no one will notice.

One final piece of advice is vital, but frequently overlooked. To illustrate it, consider my former colleague who searched recently for a marketing management position. The woman had worked in sales for seven years at one company, but her resume didn't provide much detail about her experience in marketing or management. It did, however, highlight some of her training, such as: "Attended 'Marketing 101,' a seminar for sales representatives."

Out of curiosity, I asked her about that experience. She said that being asked to attend this seminar was considered a major honor and that only five out of 50 sales reps a year were allowed to participate. Really? The item on her resume now reads, "Invited by senior marketing management to attend 'Marketing 101,' a seminar for the firm's top five (out of 50) performers."

When you present your qualifications in a resume, letter or in person, look for the light under the bushel -- the specific element of the experience that best communicates your skills and accomplishments.

"Make it relevant to your work experience and how you can help us," says Ms. Lynch. By writing clearly and directly, you'll successfully navigate your way through the rough job-search waters.

-- Mr. Messmer is the author of several job-search books, including "Job Hunting for Dummies" (John Wiley & Sons, 1999).