There are better ways to get attention

That last blog post on how not to get a job made something entirely clear to me: You all want more guidance about writing cover letters. As Rosie put it in her comment:

In my opinion this is really important. If we want to be writers shouldn’t the first example of our writing be stellar?

The answer is a resounding YES. And let your voice come through without sacrificing perfect grammar, spelling, clarity and organization.

The letter is more important than your resume. Trust me on this.

One of my former students allowed me to share this example with you. This is an actual email he sent the actual editor of an actual (famous) magazine:

Mr. Corn,

I’ll keep this brief, since you looked pretty busy on Twitter as of, like, 10 seconds ago. I’m a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, and I’m looking for an internship in Washington D.C. from about December/January to May. I know MoJo normally bases its interns in San Fran, but I noticed in the latest issue’s masthead that your D.C. bureau had an intern, so I thought I’d be pesky and ask if you had an availability. If so, do you have any kind of application process, or is it one of those vision quest-y things where I have to ascend a mountain of bureaucrats with nothing but a day’s worth of rations and a FOIA request to discover whether Obama is selling our nation’s puppy chow secrets to the Chinese? If so, should I start fasting now?

Obligatory self-marketing, in case you’re still reading: I’ve done some investigative work on the criminal justice system, I covered the BP oil spill for five days in July, and I’ve got experience in computer-assisted reporting, which I used to crunch campaign contributions for a big feature I just did on the preposterousness of Missouri’s races. (Turns out, big surprise, that Roy Blunt is the consummate Washington insider. Other news: dirt is brown.)

Anyway, please let me know if MoJo has a cupboard in its D.C. Bureau kitchen in which you’d have space for me to work in. I don’t make much noise.

It’s casual, irreverent, reveals the writer’s awareness of Twitter, his understanding of the publication’s inner workings and is pretty fun to read. Yeah, that last bit matters. Oh, and by the way, you don’t normally want to disclose political opinions in a cover letter (as this student did about Blunt). But this particular publication wears its politics on its sleeve, so it was okay.

Here’s the editor’s reply:

Good attitude and spunk. Bother me again after the election, say after 11/13. I have some traveling to do once the bloodbath is over. Then I’ll be able to focus on this. Thanks.

Let me know via email or here via comment if you’d like me to hold a “cover letter clinic” sometime soon. I’d be happy to do so.

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31 Responses to There are better ways to get attention

  1. renbishop says:

    Girl needs job, girl needs resources. Any kind of direction towards writing cover letters, scoring internships or making a splash in this huge ocean of iReporting/Journalism, I would certainly appreciate.

  2. Yes, definitely, help with cover letters would be amazing.

  3. amrita88 says:

    Can we devote a whole class to this stuff? I can hardly believe that cover letter worked…..but it’s amazing.

  4. kebedefaith says:

    I think a clinic of sorts would be really helpful. I’ve heard of this writing working before, but it’s hard to believe and let down my socially constructed narrow view of what professionalism is and what clicks. It makes sense that this email would grab attention, but good attention? That’s remarkable. It’s seems too good to be true that a cover letter can be fun!

  5. rynashley says:

    I absolutely adore that cover letter. Back when I was a freshman and actually had enough free time to get bored, I would write practice cover letters. They were always fun, though not necessarily appropriate. That aside, practice letters serve as good practice for getting qualifications across without losing voice. It’s an activity I need to find time to recover.

  6. Ben Frentzel says:

    Wow. That cover letter would have sold me on an intern. I would definitely like a cover letter help session.

  7. If I could learn to write a cover letter as creative and witty as that, I would be eternally grateful. That’s a bold approach that quite frankly I don’t have the guts to attempt, so I really would like to learn more about the ins and outs of cover letters.

  8. lakhani29 says:

    For years now I’ve heard of the importance of resumes and cover letters. Mostly how important a resume is and how a cover letter is recommended and encouraged but not required.

    I’ve got a resume, but have yet to write a cover letter. The only reason is simply because I’m not sure where to begin, where to end and what to include in the middle. I would love if we could have a clinic/class on cover letters. I imagine they’re especially important in the field of journalism because they show your prospective employer what they’re most curious about: your writing style. At least I think so, I could be wrong though.

    I’ve written and read a lot of stuff in the past, and I’ve noticed the most entertaining/interesting/memorable stuff (articles, books, essays, you name it) has been written in a certain style that’s specific to the author and no one else. It looks like that’s what a cover letter is all about (while still maintaining proper grammar, spelling, punctuation and organization, of course).

    Out of curiosity, though, did the student show you the cover letter before he sent it to the editor of the magazine? What’d you think about it? I know your situation is a little different, but if you were in the position to hire someone, what would your response have been to that letter (or one similar to it)?

  9. Wow—that’s an amazing cover letter. Mine sounds so formal compared to that! I know that example is a bit of an extreme, but still, it makes me want to rethink mine. I’m impressed by the student’s boldness at sending something like that!

  10. brianagust says:

    I would love to learn some pointers on how to write a cover letter that includes “spunk.” The writer’s personality was almost tangible. And I agree with Amrita – a whole class devoted to cover letters would be helpful!

  11. Katie Bevan says:

    That cover letter scares me. It makes me nervous. That takes guts.

    But I would absolutely love a cover letter lecture. I cannot count the number of times my roommates and friends and I have sat around staring at a cover letter trying to figure out what to do with it.

  12. asgrund says:

    That cover letter was gutsy. I wonder, though, if such a letter would work for all publications, or if the student knew that particular publications liked such a witty voice. When does “spunky” cross the line and turn into “unprofessional”?

  13. I was really curious why this would appeal to the editor so I looked him up: David Corn of Mother Jones. I noticed that the style employed in the letter is somewhat similar to Corn’s own, as seen in the blog like intro to this piece at Politics Daily:
    http://www.politicsdaily.com/2010/11/03/after-the-dem-olition-how-tough-will-obama-get/

    All about your audience…

  14. Cover letter clinic– PLEASE!

  15. Caitlin Miller says:

    I’m not sure how I feel about that student’s cover letter. I can see it being witty and smart, but I also feel like it might lack a little professionalism. Still up in the air. Yet seeing as how I currently don’t even have a cover letter, they still beat me!

    I think a cover letter info session would be a great idea.

  16. Sigh. How do you really know how someone is going to react to something like this? Although I think it’s very witty, I wonder if editors at spunky media organizations have seen it all before. I sent something like this to Daily Candy and scored an interview out of it. Other times, I think they have landed right next to every other one I’ve thrown out into the abyss. I just pictured the editor snuffing “Yeah, we get it kid. You’re cute.”

    How do you stand out when there are about 300 applicants to every unpaid fact-checking internship out there? Yes, a cover letter session would be nice. 🙂

  17. mmarkelz says:

    Agreed, a help session would be greatly appreciated.

    When I started reading the cover letter, I thought the end of the post was going to say something like: this is an example of voice gone BAD. I’ve always been told that editors are going to be too busy to read something wordy, but being boring will get you passed by too.

    I’m worried about this cover letter coming off less as “irreverent” and more as bordering on disrespectful with the playful assumption that he’ll “ascend a mountain of bureaucrats with nothing but a day’s worth of rations and a FOIA request” —not to mention the whole Obama puppy chow thing makes me think he’s comparing the publication to cable news sensationalist journalism.

    I know it’s his voice and it’s supposed to be exaggerated and funny, but how do you know when to grovel and when to make fun of the very job you’re seeking?

  18. Sydney Berry says:

    Yes, definitely would appreciate the cover letter clinic.

  19. I think a workshop would be very beneficial. I’d love to know how to give my cover letter some personality without losing all formality.

  20. Workshop? ABSOLUTELY!

  21. A cover letter workshop would be great – but even better if accompanied by suggested places to send them to.

  22. Alex Giddings says:

    A clinic would be really nice but is a clinic really the best way to teach personal voice? I’ve actually landed an internship for this coming summer based off of a really informal email. It just opened pathway of communication that helped to develop a relationship with the person.

    Is that email example in the post a “cover letter?” I think that term scares people. It just seems like an out dated concept. When people think “cover letter” they think to formal. Traditional and formal doesn’t get a job these days.

    • reedkath says:

      I think it depends, Alex, on what the job is. And who the person doing the hiring is, and what kind of organization it is. I think that what I posted on the blog IS in fact a kind of cover letter, though I get that it sounds sort of stuffy.
      No, I don’t think I will try to teach personal voice in a cover letter writing clinic. I am not sure that voice can be taught anyway. It’s something a writer develops over time and as his/her confidence increases.

  23. Audrey Moon says:

    Please. I have searched online for good cover letter examples, but having a workshop would be beneficial. I’m a little confused about how targeted each cover letter should be depending on where you are applying, so maybe that is something we could touch on?

  24. Brooke Shunatona says:

    sign me up!

  25. Sean Leahy says:

    I would definitely appreciate a cover letter workshop.

  26. I’ve only had experience writing a few cover letters. A “cover letter clinic” would be wonderful.

  27. maryals says:

    yeah I’m down, school me on some cover letters katherine

  28. Melanie Lynch says:

    I think this is a great idea! I have another suggestion: could we do something like this for portfolios as well, both digital and paper formats?

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