A Rant about Cover Letters

There are two kinds of cover letters that I deal with professionally: cover letters for stories and cover letters for résumés. I shall rant about each of them today.

Cover Letters for Stories

When it comes to this type of cover letter, there are two types of editors: those who read the cover letter first and those who don’t. I am firmly in the latter category. I prefer to go straight to the story with no preconceived notions about who the author is or what the story is about. If the story hooks me, entertains me, and resolves the ending well, then I’ll move forward with it. The particulars of the author’s background are incidental. If they’re interesting at all, they’re interesting because the author told a good tale. And writing a good cover letter and writing a good story are two different skills—I wouldn’t want to go into a good story with a negative opinion about the author because of a bad cover letter. I’m worried about the story.

Editors who read the cover letter first usually want to have that background information clear in their minds before they start the story. They may also be judging the author’s ability to pitch the story through their cover letter (I imagine this might be even more the case with agents). And I admit, a direct declaration of genre in the cover letter might save an editor or agent a lot of time if they don’t publish or represent that genre—there’s no reason to spend time reading something you can’t use. Even as a story-first editor, I sometimes do come back to the cover letter for clarification on these points. When I do, it’s usually because something’s unclear in the story itself. For example, if an author is tweaking a certain convention or taking a genre in an unusual direction, the cover letter can tell me what the author is trying to do. Then I can make an editorial judgment as to whether the author is doing it successfully and whether or not the work should be published.

Cover Letters for Résumés

Cover letters in a job application really have one purpose: to get the person reading it to look at your résumé. (The résumé, in turn has only one purpose as well: to land you an interview. The purpose of the interview is to actually get you the job.) Now, I’ve not talked to any HR people about this yet, but I wonder if they don’t have a similar division of styles when it comes to cover letters as editors do. Do some of them go straight to the résumé and look at the cover letter second? Or is the process all automated? (HR people out there: please enlighten us in the comments.) Like everything that humans do, I imagine it varies from person to person and place to place. I will say that every HR person I’ve talked to has the goal of helping people (no matter how automated their system may of necessity be).

Similarities Between the Two

Both kinds of cover letters share some of the same frustrating qualities. As a freelancer, I’ve recently come to the point where I’m looking for full-time work again, and so I’ve been writing a lot of cover letters of the job application variety. And I’ve come to appreciate anew the frustrations that come with writing cover letters.

  1. You never know your audience. My job application might go to a human resources employee, an automated parsing algorithm, or some intern working in the department doing the hiring. Occasionally it might even go to the person who’ll be doing the interviews. But with few exceptions, I have no way of knowing who will be reading my cover letter. It might be multiple people. What offends one might be hilarious to another. Without knowing my audience, how can I follow the oft-repeated mantra of writing my cover letter specifically for them? The same problem happens in publishing. You usually don’t know if your cover letter will be read by the acquisitions editor, that editor’s assistant, or the poor unpaid intern manning the slushpile. And it will be different at each publisher or agency you query.
  2. You never get any feedback. Neither publishers nor HR departments have the time to critique your cover letter. If something about it turns them off, you may get an automated reply—if you’re lucky. Usually an unsuccessful cover letter is greeted with nothing but silence.Which makes it incredibly hard to improve them.

    With most writing, you can at least get a writing group together and give each other critiques. But unless you’re really good friends with a really generous human resources person, everyone in a cover letter writing group is likely to be just as clueless as you are. Even if you succeed in getting the job or publishing the story, you’re probably too excited at being hired or getting published to stop and ask, “Hey, what did I do right in my cover letter?” (And if you’re starting a new job, this may give an unwanted impression.) So success or failure, cover letters don’t get feedback.(There is the exception of a class on writing résumés and cover letters, but I tend to question how many of those classes are taught by people who ever read cover letters professionally. There are also paid professional services like resumepoets.com, but that’s a different can of worms.)

  3. You never know what effect your cover letter had. As I mentioned at the beginning, your cover letter might not impact whether or not your story sells—some stories are strong enough to overcome a weak cover letter. The same can be said of résumés. And some job applications don’t even require a cover letter. On the other hand, your cover letter might have been excellent, but perhaps you didn’t meet all the qualifications, or someone exceedingly more qualified happened to apply for the same job, or the anthology had just signed its last story right before they got around to reading yours. Any number of things can happen to prevent you from getting published or hired, and you’ll likely never know what any of them were, or whether they had anything to do with your cover letter. The ultimate outcome of your endeavor can’t tell you whether your cover letter was good or bad.

Rant off.

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