Cover Letters & Redundancies

Dear Sir &c

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When I started getting career training in junior high, and as it carried on into high school, I was taught the value of the immortal resume. Formats and essentials and even what kind of paper to use were drilled into my head. I was even taught, though less through practice and more through lecture, the deep value of the professional interview: how to look, what to say or not say, how to present oneself, when to follow up, and so on.

No one told me about the thing called a “cover letter.”

By virtue of working alongside my mother in my teenage years in her offices, I learned that cover letters were often useful pieces of paper attached at the beginning of faxes, to note who the fax was intended for and add a small memo as to the fax’s purpose. Simple things, like “Attn: John Doe; Re: Acct. #1894; This is the bill from the doctor that we received.”

When I first encountered cover letters in job searches as an independent adult, I had a two-part reaction. The first part was stupor; I’d no idea what they required. Not knowing what they required led me to a mild form of terror and renouncement: if a job required a cover letter with a resume, I wouldn’t apply because it was probably more professional of a job than I was ready for with my experience. That’s what I assumed, at least: cover letters must be for people wearing suits, not some kid in college trying to get a part time job. Thankfully, the resourcefulness of the Internet, and my own confidence that grew as I gained more experience in the working world, finally taught me what a cover letter is, or well, at least what it’s supposed to be.

The problem is, cover letters still puzzle me a little from the perspective of a job seeker. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard “Your resume should speak for itself.” Cover letters, however, are the little heralds of resumes, the “memo” that introduces the resume and the applicant. Modern cover letters generally advise the following:

  • First, introduce yourself and state briefly what you are applying for and a brief qualifying statement. Well, alright, any applicant who doesn’t let the hiring department know what job their resume is to be applied to is in a sinking ship. Qualifying statements are usually placed at the top of a resume, however, and also restated during an interview.
  • Second, offer a few specific examples of accomplishments and/or skills that are applicable to the job you’re applying to. Resume advice states the same: list specific accomplishments rather than duties. Design your resumes around each job you apply for. And let’s not forget, this is also something covered specifically in the interview process.
  • Wrap up with thank yous and contact information. Request an interview. Again, contact information is on the resume and interview requests are implied when applying for a job.

To me, cover letters seem like a step of redundancy between application and interview; somewhat like a written pre-interview in which the applicant provides answers to unspoken questions. This, of course, benefits applicant and employer: applicants get a chance to provide some information not directly accessible on their resume and offer a personal introduction; employers get the answers to more important questions than “Where have you worked in the past 10 years?” Regardless of whether cover letters feel redundant, they remain useful and are often required.

Creating cover letters requires its own art. Cover letters are often suggestive of template style work, but offering a template cover letter is about as useful as sending your resume without a cover letter. They must be succinct, informative, specific, and most importantly, personal. These aren’t easy traits to get right in a short letter, especially the first few times.

While I think I’m finally getting the hang of cover letters – enough to call them “good” – I’m still grasping for what makes a truly great cover letter. What do you think makes cover letters stand out? Can great cover letters avoid redundancy?

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Lessons in courage

Principals of (I)ndividualism

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Lately, I’ve been spending my time in some lessons on courage, strength, and identity. Little journeys of self-discovery can happen right where you sit every day, just as you fall asleep thinking the same old thoughts, and anywhere in between. Anything life-changing for me in these past few months has been centered squarely in my mind as the world passed on its regular course; yet, over time, it’s also taught me some valuable lessons.

At 29 years old, I finally realized “who I am.” In terms of career and productivity – a big part of who I am, She-Who-Cannot-Sit-Idle – this meant that finally, it clicked in my head what drove me, what I really wanted to do. Since I was young, my brain has always been conservation bound (particularly toward animal life); my dreams of being a vet eventually grew into dreams of being a biologist, an environmental lawyer or consultant, an activist, a journalist dedicated to the field. Lately, that drive has been eyeing a zoology degree. This weekend, it caught eye of a job in conservation efforts an hour away, but well worth applying to.

Not that long ago, I’d be ashamed of admitting that at 29, I just figured out my path in life. We’re pressured as young as possible to think about our careers for the rest of our lives, to settle upon becoming something. Exploration is seldom encouraged, considered a waste of time, money, and one’s life. After all, by the time I can get a Bachelor’s, I’ll have a working life cut down to only 15-20 years by most current standards.

There is, however, much reward in self-discovery. Had I made career and life choices when I was “supposed to,” as a senior in high school, I’d be living a miserable, unhappy life right now. I would have settled for what I knew then, rather than opening my eyes and mind to the world I’d yet to know. Perhaps my life would have been more comfortable financially – but misery would have sunk in quickly and led to despair or drastic measures.

Still, it takes courage to not only know yourself, but be yourself. This is especially true of any of us who have a public presence. We are quietly encouraged to keep a low-profile, to hide our eccentricities, our failures and faults, that of us that is socially unacceptable or, at least, socially impolite. We are encouraged to airbrush our public image to perfection. Being one’s self publicly, openly, honestly, is brash, bold, dangerous, for we still live in a world where inseparable parts of who we are can deny us the freedom to live as we wish.

As a writer, this has also been a great struggle. While writing in the games industry allows more personal wiggle room, other aspirations do not. Writers are easily labelled, easily gain reputation by their comments, their beliefs, their identity; their skill at language is tossed to the wayside. Identity can destroy careers. Perhaps this is why I admire Anne Rice so much as a writer; not only does she actively engage with her readers, but she discusses religion, politics, and other views openly with them. That’s a lot to be said against many writers who sit cowering beneath their desks as they write, and shove copy quietly into the world, hoping not to cause a ripple by virtue of their identity.

As a writer, as a career woman, and as a person, I’ve no desire to play darting on the edges of the shadows. I want to be a bold individual, one who dares to be herself in the face of a deep-seated hatred toward individualism and identity. And I will continue to fight for my right to be myself, no matter what price of freedom it may cost me.

 

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Unblanking the page

Writing by jjpacresThere you sit, white screen in front of you or empty page before you. Your fingers twitch nervously. It took a lot of courage to get yourself to this moment; you’d put it off, made promises, thought and planned, but now you were finally here.

Maybe you get something on the page, but then it stops. Maybe you get nothing at all. And after a little while, you sigh, and put it all away, save it for another day that never comes.

Every writer knows this moment intimately, and I’m hardly excluded. I’ve started dozens of promising writing projects only to peter out after 500, 1000, even 50,000 words. I’ve plotted out entire novels to never even write the first word. These moments make me feel like a quitter, like I’m not good enough, like I just can’t be a writer – even though I’ve even got published proof that I’ve got what it takes, even though that inner part of me screams in agony when I am not writing.

These thoughts and feelings of the tortured writer soul who cannot get past that initial burst of brilliance are a common, shared experience. There is, however, a cure.

You can’t say, I won’t write today because that excuse will extend into several days, then several months, then… you are not a writer anymore, just someone who dreams about being a writer.
Dorothy C. Fontana

I recently responded to a question on the Empire Avenue Writer’s Community board, “Can you remember one invaluable piece of advice you were given when you first started writing? What was it and why was it so great for you?” That piece of advice, for me, was “Just write. It doesn’t matter what, just write constantly.”

A good analogy comes from the introduction of A Writer’s Book of Days, a book I received for my birthday this weekend: neither a sportsman or a musician only practices their art when they want to perform publicly. Every day, they fill their time with practice. They sing, they toot or pluck, they run and jump, but they do not stop and wait for the day of their performance to actually do what they have set out to do.

Writing practice is what I like to call “unblanking the page.” It’s disciplining yourself to put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, and write. Write without judgment, expectation, or intent beyond getting words on the page. Writing practice isn’t about writing scenes for your great novel (although it may happen in circumstance), or compiling short stories or poetry into an anthology. It’s about taking a kernel, an idea, and going with the emotion, the image, the instinct in your gut and getting it on paper. It doesn’t have to be perfect; it doesn’t have to be good, even. It simply needs to be done: writing must be practiced.

This is a habit I, myself, am out of, despite spending almost every day writing as a freelancer. I write mostly out of rote, but the projects, the dreams, the wanting to go beyond what I do, to improve my skills, does not truly get practiced. So I will be, myself, embarking on the “writing practice” journey. I will write, to write. And that energy, I believe, will empower the greatness of the future.

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Joining the Fight against the Stupids

The Internet’s a fantastic place: it makes discovering and connecting with the world outside your door phenomenally easier. And one of those connections I’ve had the pleasure of making is with Maple Street Book Shop, in New Orleans.

Maple Street Book Shop is an independent book store in New Orleans, opened in 1964 and still standing after all these years (and the disasters that have since passed through) as the oldest around. Their motto is “Fight the Stupids” – by, of course, reading books.

While it’s a damn shame they’re states away – because I’d be happily walking in their door if they weren’t – I got a little of Maple Street brought to me yesterday. A medium package, the result of winning a giveaway on Twitter, arrived, and this is what it contained:

Maple Street Book Store GiveawayThat’s a Fight the Stupids canvas tote (a sturdy one at that), along with a few surprises that were hidden inside – two stickers, a magnet, and Man with a Pan by John Donohue (a book the husband is eagerly waiting to get into). It’s a fantastic little token of appreciation.

So in return, I ask a little favor of you: if you live close to New Orleans, go visit the shop itself (7523 Maple Street). If you’re home-bound, or far away, go visit the Book Shop online instead (http://maplestreetbookshop.com/), where you can find out more about the shop, and support the shop through purchasing “Fight the Stupids” gear or from their online selection. You can also follow and connect with the shop on Twitter @fightthestupids and Facebook.

Don’t forget to support your own local independent bookstores, too!

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New Perspectives

Feng shui symbol

Image via Wikipedia

Moving over the past week  - and all the effort that’s led up to it – has energized me mentally as much as it has exhausted me physically. There’s so much about moving that gets the mental process really going: throwing out old things, sorting what you’re keeping, and then replacing it all in a new atmosphere. Plus there’s plenty to think about during the entire process.

I’m set up in my new office space now, surrounded by good vibes and plenty of plans to pick up and start again. I’ve got a novel to write, articles to plan, new jobs to look for, and plenty to do. I’ve also got school to reapply for and yet more on the plate that keeps this new forward momentum pushing on further and further.

It’s time for transition. There are new perspectives to embrace, and old ends to tie up. There will be no more left undone or unsaid – it’s time to be real.

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