Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What I know about queries I learned from cover letters

I've spent the past two weeks reviewing resumes and reading cover letters. 159 of them, to be exact. This is not a process I enjoy. I don't like categorizing people. I worry that someone I'm putting in my "eh, maybe" pile should really be in my, "hmm, interested" pile. I'm constantly moving people back and forth between piles. Then I feel guilty so I move them back where they were originally. Then I worry that I'm biased toward someone because I knew someone with the same name who was terrible and . . . .you get the idea.

It's a never ending loop of second-guessing myself (much like writing itself, ironically).

Back when I was actively querying, I read a lot of agents blogs who talked candidly about the process. I noticed a surprising number of similarities between the experience I had scanning cover letters and looking for applicants to interview, and the experience agents have scanning query letters and looking for pages to request.

Based on all the cover letters I read, here's the tips I came up with. What do you think - do they apply to query letters as well?
  • The best first way to get my attention was with professional documents and communication. I was floored by how many resumes I got that were just lists with no formatting. How many cover letters I got that were just paragraphs typed into Word - not even in general letter format with a salutation and sign-off. Most weren't this bad, but a lot were full of errors. The cover letter addressed to the wrong organization, a word used wrong, and overly snarky tone, etc, etc. So when one popped up that was clean and easy to read, that followed all the (very) basic formatting rules, that was professional, it was like a breath of fresh air. I took notice, and I looked closer. 
  • Watch out for the pictures in gmail. If you use gmail, and you have your picture attached (or your pic is attached to your Google account), and you send an email to me, your picture is what I see first. If it's a professional head-shot, that can be a great thing. If it's you drunk at a club with your friends, not so much. Not only is that true for any email address ending in, of course, but tons of email programs are run through gmail now, with their own custom domain. Mine's one of them.
  • Be careful how personal you get.  I want to know things about you -- I want to know a lot of things about you. But the number one thing is, can you do the job?  Prove that first, and then give me the basics about you, but only as they relate to this job. Tell me you're detail-oriented and punctual. Don't tell me you love Disney movies, and over-achieved in high school. Tell me you have a working knowledge of SPSS. Don't tell me about all the wine you drink, or that you got stomped on by an Elephant while on a semester abroad in Thailand.
  • Don't give me a website where I can find more information about you. I was surprised that this one bothered me. I have no problem with persona websites, and no issue with the ones listed with the other contact information on the resume. I did have a problem with cover letters that directed me to go to such and such website for information on the applicant. I'd rather you just give me the information up-front than send me on a fact-finding mission.
  • Write well, write well, write well. The applicants who got the most attention were the ones who wrote the best letters. I skim - everyone does. But if you're writing is excellent, my eyes will stop skimming and focus in on the words. I'll get a better sense of who you are and what skills you bring to the table. You'll hold my attention longer. I'll remember your name better.
  • Of course, even if you sent me a cover letter that was professionally formatted, free of drunken pictures and TMI, that gave me all the info I needed in one clean, organized place, and somehow made the whole thing sing, you still have to be able to do the job. And for writers, of course, that means you still have to be querying a kick-ass story. 
What do you think pirates? Would you follow these tips when sending a cover letters? How about a query? Do you think there's more room for creativity in query letters? Have you had success by doing the opposite of any of these? What other tips would you include for writings doing either a query or a cover letter?


Terri Osburn said...

Last summer I had the task of finding a receptionist for our office. My HR person sent me a pile of resumes and I started decided who to bring in. There were no cover letters, but you're right in that I could only judge them by what they'd included on the resume. I didn't feel bad about the ones I didn't bring in. It's not as if it was personal.

And I think that's what we forget when we're on the other side. That rejections ALWAYS feels personal.

These are excellent tips and all apply to query letters. I didn't know that about Gmail. Good thing I have my professional shot attached. Though I do think you can be a little more relaxed in a query than in a resume cover letter. (And I mean little literally.)

Since you want your voice to come through, and you're not looking to BE HIRED but rather TO HIRE this person, or really become a kind of partnership with them, you can relax the tone just a tiny bit.

But that doesn't mean you can ever NOT be professional. I'm amazed at the things I hear agents and editors say about queries. Absolutely amazed.

Janga said...

Great tips, Hal, for queries and other writing situations!

One of my friends from grad school is a business and technical writing professor, and one of the courses she teaches is a core requirement for many majors outside liberal arts. I know she spends a lot of time stressing audience because she feels that her students write cover letters, executive summaries, reports, etc. with no concept of the real person who is going to be reading the document. So much of this is just common sense when your audience becomes real enough that you consider their perspective.

MsHellion said...

Interesting correlation. On the hiring side, it's not personal; but being rejected FEELS personal. Never thought about that, but yes, if I had to hire someone for this job and their writing sucked and they couldn't format--they'd be tossed. And if their job skills were nothing like the job, I'd be like, "WHY are you querying me?" which I'm sure is the question many editors ask when they receive a manuscript completely outside the field they ask for and have posted ON THE WEBSITE.

And I *HATE* being told to go on a fact-finding mission when you're the one wanting the favor from me. You're not J-Lo. And she probably wouldn't do that either.

I'm with Terri about slightly relaxed on the tone (though overly snarky can be bad) because you are selling your voice and personality through a letter. At least I hope so or I'm f*cked. *LOL* I don't know if I can write anything without an ironic snark slant to it.

P. Kirby said...

Back when I was in the grown-up, professional workplace, my cover letters were a cheerful, but otherwise very professional in tone.

Now that I'm working part-time, and not looking for a "career," I go with a much more relaxed tone, and quite frankly, my last cover letter had a touch of mild snark. got me several interviews, and hired within a few weeks. It probably helped that the overall format was still professional, and that I can string two sentences together without sounding like a gibbering feeb. (Comments left here and elsewhere on the web, not withstanding.)

Query letters allow for a bit more creativity because you are selling a creative product, art, as it were. But any communication, whether with an prospective employer or an agent/editor needs to be framed in the basics of professionalism. I.e., sending a cover letter on pink paper with purple text will make you look like a loon.

I've gotten to the point where I doubt I'll agonize over the next round of query letters. I'll crank out a professional, well-crafted letter, and send the same sucker to all the agents on my list. My days of trying to please each and every agent's individual idiosyncrasies are so ovah.

If I don't get any nibbles, I'm self-publishing.

haleigh said...

Ter - I think that was part of my problem. I knew those I had to reject would take it personal, and even though I knew it wasn't, I felt bad.

I agree that a query is looking more for a partnership than an employee, so the relationship has a different power dynamic. Queries can have a life and vibrancy to them that cover letters sometimes can't.

haleigh said...

Janga, what a great point about remembering that your audience in a real-life person that's going to read this. So often, especially with the internet, we feel like we're just throwing things out there into the ether, and forget to really consider our audience.

Along those lines, really good cover letters addressed the questions I had when reading them. For instance, several applicants didn't currently live in the US. The better letters clearly spelled out their visa status and relocation plans. I think that goes back to really considering your audience, and thinking through what information they need, and what questions you can answer up front.

haleigh said...

Hellie, I was shocked how many people applied without meeting any of the basic qualifications. And the number of people who sent me super generic letters with things like, 'I will improve the performance of your company or organization.' Uh-huh. And do you even know the organization you're applying to?

I think you're absolutely right that there's more room for your voice, and an interesting voice, when it's a query. You're absolutely selling your voice, through one page, which is a herculean task.

MsHellion said...

Nothing gives a hiring manager the warm fuzzies than a FORM LETTER from the applicant! Come on, people, if you don't want a form letter in return, personalize it wherever you can. Idiot.

haleigh said...

Pat, how interesting! I wonder if the cover letters with a touch of snark stood out because they were more vibrant and alive than the standard ones. I could see being really drawn to that, just because it gives a glimpse of your personality, rather than just the dry list of education and past employment. There were a couple I read that by qualifications alone, the applicant was on the cusp, but their cover letter was so well-written and personable, I wanted to interview them anyway. And half the battle of hiring is finding people you'll work well with, really. I can train someone to do all sorts of things, I can't train their personality :)

haleigh said...

Pat, I also meant to say that I'm with you on not trying to address individual agent's ideocyncricies in each query letter. One good one, addressed to the right name/address, is all you need!

haleigh said...

Hellie, I actually got one where I wasn't even sure the person was actually applying. All the qualifications were there, but it was copied and pasted from LinkedIn, with no additional information. I still can't figure out if the person sent it herself as an application, or if some roving google bot matched key words and sent it to me. She did not get a personalized reply from me.

This time around, I tried to include the person's first name in my standard 'thanks I got it' reply. I also signed it myself rather than just the generic "HR team." I got a lot fewer snarky replies, so I'm thinking the personalization helped people to feel like they were working with a real person. (or maybe I just got lucky, who knows!)

P. Kirby said...

You know, I wouldn't feel that guilty about tossing cover letters and resume in the "Nope" pile. Thing is, communication is key in the workplace (and elsewhere). But especially in the workplace. If the person can't put together a cogent, coherent cover letter and resume, they are unlikely to be a good fit for ANY job, short of flipping burgers.

I mean unless the person is literally going to do some manner of menial labor, in the same way, every day, he or she will have to communicate with others and adapt to changes in his/her routine. Much of our communication nowadays is still written -- emails, text, etc.

Besides, I don't see how anyone can get "hurt" at the application stage. Maybe if you'd scored an interview and are feeling like the job is almost yours, only to get the "sorry, but..." call. But I've had plenty of cover letter/resumes vanish into the ether and never worried about it all. *Shrugs* It happens.

Marnee Bailey said...

Write well, write well, write well. The applicants who got the most attention were the ones who wrote the best letters. I skim - everyone does. But if you're writing is excellent, my eyes will stop skimming and focus in on the words.

This is SOOOO true. I mean, an agent/publisher gets literally thousands of these every year. One agency put their stats up at like 60K query letters a year. Wow. So I think writing tight and well is the only way to stand out.

Great pointers. And poor you sifting resumes. LOL!!

Maureen said...

First off, it would be hard not to open with being stomped on by an elephant in Thailand. Because, well, that is sorta interesting.

Not helpful if you're looking for someone who can put together spreadsheets. But still!

An elephant?

All joking aside, yeah, seems like a very proficient list that makes perfect sense...

Terri Osburn said...

I know someone who was charged by a rhino while on vacation in Africa. So, you know, that elephant thing could totally happen.

Maureen said...

I know when I am querying agents and/or publishers I strive for a professional tone, but with a touch of the voice I write with. But I do think that is s difference in what the work place wants and what the publishing world wants.

Honestly, if this self-publishing thing brings me joy I don't know if I'll ever query again. This girl just wants to have fun!

Maureen said...

And reading that about an elephant or rhino would certainly make me pay attention to the letter!

irisheyes said...

Good advice Hal! I would second that these are good guidelines for all cover letters, queries, essays, etc.

My daughter is on the "researching colleges" track right now and it is unbelievable the amount of letter writing and essay submitting that is required. Her focus/majors are math and science (which the DH has pushed since she started kindergarten) but she uses her English/Grammar skills (which I have pushed since she was born!) more than anything at this point.

Terri Osburn said...

Irish, last night we attended an introduction night at kiddo's future HS and I convinced her to apply for the AVID program. Can't remember what it stands for, but they spend four years focused on getting them ready for and into college. Lots of writing from what I understand. Sounds like a great program to give them a leg up when application time comes.

irisheyes said...

Do it, Ter! My daughter says over and over how essential all her English/Grammar is to her. And not even in her major or career, but in doing the day to day things that will get her where she wants to go in her major/career.

Everyone is always stressing math/science/computer technology and they don't stop to think that these kids also need to COMMUNICATE with people. They need to learn how to talk to others and properly represent themselves. It is truly becoming a lost art.

Terri Osburn said...

I admit, I'm not big on science so I've never pushed it, but I do encourage her to learn about technology. And yet she's leaning more and more toward English and writing. She loves newspaper and now she's writing fanfic with a friend.

Being able to write well is important for every single field, I don't care what it is. Even in science, you need to be able to write the academic articles and papers. Or books!

Maureen said...

I can remember hearing Bill Gates lament over his engineers and their inability to communicate in simple English. He made them take classes at Microsoft.