Cover letters are the bane of any job-seeker’s existence.
Most of us dread writing them. How do you sum up all your qualifications and experience into a page or less, let alone make the first two sentences so engaging, so captivating, that the exhausted hiring manager sorting through the submissions just has to keep reading?
Hold up a second and think about that again. You’re trying to write something that is so immediately engrossing that the person reading it can’t bear to put it down.
Sounds like a job for a professional writer!
Turns out, writing a cover letter isn’t so different from writing a novel! The most effective ones make use of classic storytelling arcs to show a journey and create a sense of catharsis, or relief, in the reader.
In a novel, you’re detailing the character arc of your protagonist, often taking them along the Hero’s Journey as they grow, overcome challenges, and reach new heights in their life.
In a cover letter, you’re detailing a chapter in your own arc: how you got your amazing skills, and how you’ll use them to overcome the challenges your target employer is facing.
Think of it in those terms and writing a cover letter suddenly becomes fresh and exciting!
All you have to do is combine your skills as a novelist or creative writer with the basic requirements of a professional letter and you’re on your way to success.
Here’s how to apply your fiction-writing skills to crafting a more effective cover letter that lands you the interview.
Start with the Hook
It’s often said that you have one paragraph—one page if you’re lucky—to get your reader hooked on your novel.
The same is true with a cover letter. Hiring managers are inundated with applications and often just scan the dozens of emails and letters they receive every day. So it’s critical to stand out immediately—to hook the HR person just like you hook someone into a novel.
But “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” might not be the ideal approach here. You only have a brief moment to grab your reader’s attention and you need to do it in a way that’s businesslike and on point, but still different enough to be noticed.
Instead of using a formulaic opening like “I’m writing to express my interest in this position,” get creative with your hook. Express how excited you are by the challenge the position poses and that you’re ready to jump in right away. If possible, touch on a crucial feature of the position that you’re ready and able to tackle in a big way. Include a quirky (but relevant!) detail or other unique feature to really get the hiring manager curious about you.
Some examples include:
- As a professional accountant, I’m ready and able to manage the dozens of accounts at Shipping Co.—and my background as a semi-professional chainsaw juggler has prepared me to balance all the tasks this position will require with complete grace, never dropping a thing.
- As head of marketing for Spacely Sprockets, I’ll bring a fresh perspective to your outreach efforts, combining traditional and new media to engage the most potential customers. In addition to my formal training as a marketing director, I’m also a YouTube expert, with more than 2 million views on my vacuum cleaner technology channel. I’m eager to bring my combination of smart marketing and technological fun to Spacely.
Give Background, But Not Too Much
In fiction, too much exposition is never a good thing. Your reader wants to engage with the plot and characters, not spend hours plodding through a detailed description of every historical happening, village spat, and change in the weather. A good novelist learns how to control the flow of information, giving just enough background to inform, but never so much that it overwhelms.
Same goes for writing a cover letter! Hiring managers need to know you’ve got the skills to do the job, but they don’t need to know everything you’ve ever done in the field.
Think of the cover letter as your chance to give some critical exposition, but without infodumping on the reader.
Bullet points come in handy here: list your five major accomplishments that relate to the role you’re applying for, then cut yourself off. The details go in your resume—and after seeing this teaser, the hiring manager will surely want to know more!
Outline the Challenge
Every good story needs a challenge—it’s just plain boring to read about a situation where everything’s going right all the time! And that’s not very reflective of real life, either…in the real world, there’s all kinds of bumps and forks in the road.
Businesses face challenges, too. The business you’re applying to work with surely has problems to solve and hurdles to clear. Use your knowledge of the industry and the role to figure out the major challenge that position will deal with. Then describe that quickly and clearly in your letter.
Cover letters aren’t about you. They’re about the needs of the company doing the hiring. So instead of focusing on why you need the job or why you’re the best fit, show that you understand the challenges the company is facing.
You’ll prove that you’re insightful and tuned in, and that you’ll be a good team player working to help the company succeed.
Lead to the Resolution
Once you’ve outlined the challenge, you need to move towards a resolution. In fiction, this means taking your characters through a series of conflicts, with all the attendant ups and downs, and then finally reaching a climactic resolution.
In business, you don’t know what the resolution might be—and you certainly want to minimize the “downs” you experience on the way there!
But in a cover letter arc, you can skip over all that and head straight for the resolution. You’ve pointed out the main challenge that the person taking up this role will be faced with. How can you help the company rise to the occasion?
Briefly outline one or two things you might do, based on your particular experience and skills, to help the company meet its goals and triumph over that challenge.
Leave Them Wanting More
It’s rarely engaging to spell out every little thing and to put a tidy bow on a story—a few loose ends can be tantalizing. You don’t want to leave gaping plot holes in your fiction, but allowing room for a sequel is hardly ever a bad idea.
Applying that to your cover letter arc means that you don’t give away everything you might do for the company right in your cover letter. You can give them a few hints and ideas for the kind of expertise you’ll bring on board, but hold back the details and your best ideas for execution.
The “sequel” to your cover letter, after all, is the interview—and from there, the third book in the series is when you actually start on the job. You want to make sure that you have some great insights to share when you get to that point, and that you’re continually revealing some new advancement to the plot (that is, your career and your effectiveness at work).
Don’t hold back by doing a substandard job, obviously, but give yourself room to shine by not laying everything out at the start. Leave ‘em wanting more so that they have to hire you to get it!
By applying the techniques of effective fiction plotting and storytelling arcs to your next cover letter, you can stand out from the crowd and make an impression on even the most harried HR rep.
Hook them hard, outline the challenges, remember to serve your reader’s interests instead of your own, and keep your exposition relevant and minimal. Your career arc will thank you!
What’s your secret to a great cover letter?
For more on advancing your career, check out these articles:
- How to Use LinkedIn to Improve Your Career, Grow Your Network, and Become a Social Media Master
- Business Plans for Writers: Planning Your Way to a Profitable Writing Career
- 39 Ways to Make Money Writing: The Ultimate Career Guide for Writers