Writing cover letters in the age of e-mail

Don’t hit “send” before getting some feedback.

The cover e-mail — rather than cover letter — inspires fierce disagreements between career experts.
Depending on the field, striking the right tone can be a philosophical quandary. How formal should this piece of writing be? Should the tone be closer to the cover letters of yore — or is a friendlier, casual spirit inherent to online communication?

Pamela Skillings teaches a writing workshop for the American Management Association: “Seven Critical Web Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them.” She founded Skillful Communications in 2005, a New York-based company specializing in job interview coaching.

How can applicants use the subject line to their advantage?

It’s an opportunity to cut through the clutter. Inserting a key word from the job description is a good strategy. You can also separate yourself from the crowd by inserting a targeted phrase about your skills.

Is there a way to make your e-mail more visually appealing?

Yes. Don’t write big block paragraphs. People can’t read big blocks of text on their screen. Use white space. Each idea should have its own paragraph.

When replying to Craigslist, Monster and other sites, how do you know if your e-mails are effective?

It’s really difficult to judge that based on responses from employers. When it comes to sites like that, employers are getting so many responses. It may not be a reflection of your writing style. More likely, it’s a reflection of the deluge they’re receiving. The better way to know if your writing is effective is to get some feedback from someone you know and respect. A question to ask is, “if you didn’t know me, and you received this, what would you think?” Most people don’t even proofread, let alone ask for feedback, so that can make your e-mail stand out.


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