You know that it’s beneficial to have a second set of eyes review your application materials. Someone who can tell you that your resume looks good—except for that part where you misspelled your own name ( FYI, you can check that, too !). Or that your writing sample is impressive, but that it would be even better if you used the correct version of “ their .”
But sometimes, no one is available. Maybe a contact said he would help but hasn’t replied since, and you don’t want to pester him . Or maybe you’re taking a chance in your letter and you’re afraid feedback from your stuck-in-the-mud roommate will make you lose your nerve and play it safe.
So what should you do? Write your very best letter, and then, before you hit send, try these three tips.
1. Pretend You’re a Stranger
You know why you’re perfect for this job. That’s great, but that context can prevent you from spotting what’s missing in your cover letter. In other words, you might know that you excel at building strong bonds with difficult clients or that you’re an ace public speaker, but if your cover letter uses bland language like “connect with stakeholders” and “has led multiple presentations,” the hiring manager will have no way to know the depth of your skills.
So, take the advice that you surely received from some English teacher at some point, and “Show, don’t tell.” If you led “record growth,” employ the same strategies you did on your resume to quantify your achievements . In lieu of saying I could “adapt to change,” I’ve written this: “I have routinely found myself in inaugural or transitioning roles, such as a first-time admin role that became a communications position, or taking a position once held by two people and rolling it into one.”
Ask yourself, if a stranger handed you your cover letter, what impression would it make? Would you think this person has achieved what you have achieved or could contribute what you know you can?
2. Make Yourself Take a Risk
You’ve probably seen some advice suggesting you step outside of the standard “My name is Sara and I’m applying for such-and-such position…” (If you haven’t, look here , here , and here ). But even if you spice up the intro a bit, you might hold yourself back from getting too creative, because as Muse contributor Dave Meadows writes , “Spice is good, but who wants to eat a spoonful of paprika?”
Honestly, one of the best cover letters I ever wrote was also the riskiest. And how I got over my fear of writing something over the top is that I reminded myself that I didn’t have to submit it. I didn’t write it in one of those finicky, little, online application boxes. I didn’t write in the same document as my pristine, go-to letter. I saved it under a different name and gave myself an hour to write down stories I thought exemplified who I was as an applicant and why I was right for the open role. Another time, I applied for a freelance writing position by submitting my cover letter in the form of an article—and yes, I landed an interview.
So, make yourself take a risk. Fill a document with words you’d use to describe yourself or slightly wacky, attention-grabbing first lines and examples. Then compare each document, and see if pulling a line or two from your risky letter will make your go-to stronger and more memorable.
3. Get Old School
Step one: Run spell check. Do not skip this step!
Step two: Locate a printer. If you don’t have access to a printer, it’s time for a field trip. Because in order to truly edit a cover letter, you’ll have to proofread it, and the most effective way to do that is to get it off of your computer screen and out in front of you—on paper.
So, print your cover letter and then read it out loud. Don’t breeze through it. Go slow, maybe use different voices—a super impressive voice, or an “I can’t believe I’m doing this” voice, or whatever works. As an editor, I can tell you that you’ll be surprised how often this tactic will show you that you’re actually missing a “the” and that without that three-letter word, your big, powerful sentence doesn’t make sense.
Cover letters don’t exist simply to torture you. They’re there because hiring managers are hoping you can flesh out your resume and provide them with a bit more information about why you’re right for the job. So, don’t submit the very first thing you write just to get it over with. Take the time to check your letter over—because you (yes, you!) have what it takes to write an amazing cover letter.
Photo of pencil on desk courtesy of Shutterstock .
HOO BOY. This is a big one. Don’t feel like you need to read this all in one go, but think of it like a master list of resources to check if you have any doubts. I’ve also had a little help from my friends, who are both amazing and far more knowledgeable than I:
- Sarah Fortune, otherwise known as the worlds youngest publishing manager (24!!) and the person who inflicted me upon John Blake Publishing.
- The amazing Lydia Gittins, press officer from Titan Books and all round superstar.
- Fran Roberts, marketing machine at DK, SYP extraordinaire and owner of the worlds best floral skirt collection
- And finally I also have special permission from legendary publishing rockstar Sam Missingham to include her #CVLetterTips, so watch out for those!
Now LETS GET STARTED!
Making sure your cover letter is effective is a huge pain in the ass, but it’s essentially the first contact between you and your potential future employer, so you need to make a good impression. Now, I am by no means an expert, but I’m going to tell you what’s worked for me, as well as drawing upon what other people have said, and hopefully we can create a huge master post for you to consult whenever you have ANY questions.
These are the main things I’m going to be covering in this post; if you need any other tips please do get in touch.
- How long should my cover letter be?
- Can I get away with using a basic template?
- What should my cover letter look like?
- How formal should I be in it?
- What should I actually write about?
- Who should I address it to?
- OK, I’ve written it, what should I do now?
- Anything else??
How long should my cover letter be?
Easy – one side of A4 maximum. You need to be succinct and clear, and you need to get to the point quickly. Employers get A LOT of applications, and they just don’t have the time to be reading an essay about you. Anything you need to say can be said in one side of paper, and anything longer than that is too much.
Lydia: Keep it snappy. A cover letter really doesn’t need to run to more than a couple of hundred words as it serves to introduce you, briefly say why you’re interested in the role and what relevant experience you might have.
Fran: One side of A4. Recruiters are going to be getting hundreds of letters, so it needs to be punchy and useful. If you’re worried about font points, 11 is best, but I have been guilty of shrinking to 10.5! I tend to go with Calibri, because that seems the most widely accepted font at the moment, but just be sure to use one that is legible and clean – Arial and Times New Roman do the same job.
Can I get away with using a basic template?
I feel my answer for this one is going to be controversial, but it’s what I do and what has gotten me interviews at some of the biggest publishing companies. The short answer is yes, but it needs to be a TEMPLATE only, not something you’re copy and pasting and changing the name of the company each time.
Here is the kind of template I use:
Definitely not the words ‘cover letter’ because your employer knows exactly what it is – you don’t need to write that (same with CVs)
1st para: introduction
Example: Hi, it’s me, I’m applying for this job at your company because I love your company for these reasons. I’d be amazing and now I’m going to tell you why.
2nd para: about me
I’ve done this, this and this, all of which have given me super experience for this job because of this reason, this reason and this reason. I also have these skills which will be great for this reason, and am doing this so I’ll be great at doing that too.
3rd para: what I will bring to the role
As previously mentioned I’ve done all these great things, and I will use them to make the company even better by doing this and that. Also I am super passionate about this thing/practice/ethos your company is doing/following, so would fit in great with that. Finally I am super amazing and the best possible person who will apply.
Final para: anything else which is important
I didn’t mention before but there are also all these reasons why you should give me the job. In conclusion I am incredible, I look forward to hearing back from you, kindest regards, me.
And that’s it, that’s as far as you need to go with your template. You’re still writing a new cover letter each time, but by planning something like this you can easily work out what it is you want and need to say, and where to say it. It’s like writing an essay plan but then using it for loads of different essays – it saves time and helps you to organise yourself better.
Sarah: Make it personal! – If you’re applying for quite a few jobs at a time, it’s tempting to use a template for each application and just change the publisher’s name, and this is absolutely a mistake I made when I applied for work experience placements, and even jobs in publishing at first. While I think it’s fine to have a standard starting paragraph explaining who you are and why you want to go into publishing, I would always have a different middle paragraph for each application. No one is expecting you to have read their whole backlist, but just mention a couple of things the company have done that make you want to work for them. If you’re applying for a job at your all-time favourite publishers and you’ve read loads of their books, then by all means tell them! If they’re a company you know less about, Google them and see what they have coming out, if they’ve been nominated for anything or have anything similarly newsworthy. Again, it all shows that you care and that you want *this* job, not just any job.
Fran: I’m reluctant to say “template”. Run of the mill cover letters are boring and it’s not going to do you any favours. However, if you find a certain structure works for you, stick with it. But every letter needs to be personal and you can’t do that from a template. My trick is to structure it by: talk about me, talk about my experience, talk about the company.
Lydia: Write some good templates. Having two or three strong template letters to cover different areas of publishing (eg editorial, publicity, production etc) that you’re interested in will be a time-saver ultimately as it will allow you to update with the relevant job title and company name (along with any name checked books to show you understand what the company publishes) as you go. It’s honestly a time-saver that you will high-five yourself for later, even if writing them feels like a chore to begin with. And always make sure you check before hitting send just in case you have the wrong company name in there (it’s happened to all of us, don’t worry!)
Ok so we’ve all given conflicting advice here. The most important thing to do is to use whichever method feels right, and what works for you.
What should my cover letter look like?
P simple answer for this one – it should look like a letter! Some people appreciate having all the formalities, like an address in the top right corner and all that, some people couldn’t give a hoot. Do what feels more normal and what you’re more comfortable with.
Sarah: Lay it out like a letter – Like old people did, with your address in one corner and the company’s in another. It just looks nicer on the page and shows that you care.
Fran: Depends on your job. I know that if you’re trying to get in to Design, it sometimes helps to have something a bit more creative. But don’t go overboard! Mine has always been a standard letter format, with my name, number and email at the top. It doesn’t have to be fancy – it has to be good.
How formal should I be?
My cover letter is not formal. It obviously isn’t filled with slang, incorrect grammar and smiley faces, but my last one began with ‘Hi!’ and included me saying that I make a cracking cup of tea (I figured if I read that I’d want to give me a job, so it might work with other people too). I think the formality of your covering letter depends on who you’re writing to, the image you want to put across and what you think works best for you. Applying at an independent children’s publisher vs applying at a huge international academic publishers are entirely different things and should be treated as such. At the same time, publishing is a creative industry, so you don’t need to apply in the same way as if you were writing to apply to work at a law firm. Work out what works best for you, and go with that.
Fran: Don’t worry about being hugely formal, remember that you have to show your personality too. But stick to the rules – don’t get too familiar, try not to use exclamation points (only use them in special circumstances, if at all), and remember that these people are wanting to employ you, not be your friend. Do you write to people in a professional capacity now? How do you approach them? It’s the same idea. If you’re not sure, imagine reading it to a complete stranger – how does it make you look? Make sure you find out the name of whoever it is recruiting, but try to stick with Mr/Mrs/Ms, as first names tend to step in to the too-familiar territory.
What should I actually write about?
I think there is no right or wrong answer to this question. Some people think that cover letters are for skills you have, and CVs are for experience, some people think the other way around, some people think something entirely different. Mine is pretty much a combination of both.
I know that it’s often useful to see examples of cover letters, so here is the entirety of the last cover letter I wrote, with names etc redacted:
Hello (name of person I sent it to)!
My name is Emma, and I am writing to apply for the (role) as advertised on (website/twitter account you saw job, or which was recommended to me by this person). This is my ideal role, and I have already undertaken a number of similar jobs and developed relevant skills which make me a great fit; hopefully you will give me the chance to show you how passionate I am about book publishing. I am especially keen to work with you at (company name), as I am particularly passionate about working with non-fiction, and I really love your (particular really good book series). Being able to work with such amazing authors as (those involved in said series) would be incredible, so hopefully over the course of this letter I can convince you to give me a chance to do so!
At the moment I am a publishing intern at John Blake, where I work in almost all departments of the company. I am doing a lot of publicity and editorial work, as well as being the general admin assistant for the whole office. I am in charge of the phones and info email accounts, dealing with submissions and author queries, sending out press mailings, proof reading manuscripts and press materials, tracking e-book sales and a number of other responsibilities! Every day at John Blake I gain more invaluable publishing experience, however I would love to be able to reach the next stage in my career – a permanent job!
Prior to this, I undertook an internship at Biteback Publishing, working in their marketing, publicity and sales department. I was writing press releases, blog posts and publicity updates for upcoming releases, and using Gorkana to source relevant contacts to send this to. I also created a social media schedule for March, including a new marketing tactic to be implemented for the foreseeable future. As well as this, I uploaded forthcoming books to Nielsen Title Editor, writing bios for each of these and categorising them with BIC codes. Additionally I helped to process the sales orders made on the website, and organise these being sent out.
My role before as a marketing and social media assistant at an investment banking firm will allow me to bring forward a unique view to the (role), as well as requiring at lot of the same skills. I worked on increasing the marketability of recently acquired the shopping centres through the use of social media and digital marketing. I was in a small team, so the role was very high demand and a lot of work, with a lot riding on the success of the project. I was personally in charge of developing the social media campaigns for all seven shopping centres, having to research all previous work which had been done, the demographics of the pages followers, the centres competitors and other influencing factors. I undertook a lot of admin work, such as keeping up correspondence with centre staff and clients, taking minutes in meetings and organising an event for centre staff to attend, including travel and accommodation, eating arrangements and creating an agenda.
I’ve also interned as an editorial assistant at a magazine publisher and worked as a freelance proofreader throughout university, both of which have also helped to prepare me for this role. I’m great at organisation and very attentive, as well as being awesome at time management. Additionally, I run the Twitter account @pubinterns, so I am always up to date with publishing news and events. I also make a cracking cup of tea and usually have any kind of stationery you could ever need about my person – if that isn’t useful, then I don’t know what is.
I am completely dedicated to establishing a career in book publishing, and I hope that you will give me a chance to show you.
As you can see, this is way too long, I just got a little carried away/over-excited when applying because I had done literally EVERYTHING the job spec asked for. But you can also see that I researched the company, tailored what I wrote to what they were looking for, and tried to make the most of the space I had. I talked about the non-publishing job I had, because the experience I gained there was also great for the role. I even mentioned the Twitter account, because so many people in publishing are active on Twitter and if you show them you have an active presence then they’ll be able to look you up! (I’m assuming not all of you run publishing internship Twitter accounts which you can mention, so another way to do this is to message the person who listed the job, include publishing hashtag talks you’ve been involved in, or if it’s for a role which includes social media use you can talk about publishers/authors on Twitter who you think are doing a great job).
You might think my cover letter is total bollocks (and it might be!) but I think that my personality comes across, that it’s well written enough to not be thrown straight in the bin and that it shows I would have been good for the role. If you can get that from your cover letter too, you’re golden!
Lydia: Write a cover letter! At the risk of sounding flippant on this, when we have internships available I receive applications that don’t have any form of cover letter (either as an attachment or in the body of the email). I completely understand time constraints on job and internship applications, but a brief cover letter that introduces you and references the role and company lets me know that you’ve read the description and are interested in this particular opportunity.
Sarah: Don’t treat it as an afterthought – Just FYI, an email that says ‘Hello, I am writing to you to apply for work experience, please find my CV attached’ is NOT a covering letter! I think the covering letter is just as important as your CV, and actually more important in a lot of ways. CVs from publishing graduates tend to be fairly similar (good degree, couple of work experience placements here and there) so the covering letter is your chance to stand out, and could just get you the interview versus someone who clearly hasn’t made an effort.
Fran: Your cover letter is going to work as a bit of a mini-CV, as well as proving you’re the perfect person for that company. Key points to remember:
– talk about the company you’re applying to, reference something relevant if you can (is there a campaign you admire? A success story on the Bookseller to reference?)
– “tick the boxes” when it comes to the job description. Give them clear examples of when you have achieved something that they are looking for. For example, if you’re applying for a marketing role, and they want experience of working on marketing campaigns (which they will unless it’s entry level), give them an example of one you have worked on, with some measurables if you can – how it did, what worked and what you did to make it work
– what do you want them to see in your CV? Make a point of it in your covering letter – they will look for it in the CV
– talk about something other than your job – find an example outside of your job that fits with what they are looking for. You’re a real person, not your CV! Show your passion for something, show you’re driven. Include some positive feedback someone’s given you. Give them a 3D picture of what you’re like. I always talk about my blog, or my travelling, or something that has given me transferable skills.
Lydia: Keep it relevant to the role. If you’re applying for a publicity internship don’t list a life-long dream of being an editor as your reason for applying. Likewise if you’re applying to a publisher that specialises in one particular genre (non-fiction, crime, YA etc) try to tailor towards this, even if it’s just expressing your appreciation as a reader for a similar book.
Sarah: Show some commercial awareness- While it’s fantastic that you’ve read the entire work of Dickens and love the Brontes, most publishers don’t really want to hear about this (unless you’re going for a job at Penguin Classics, in which case, go for it). If you’re applying for a job in publishing, you obviously love reading, but talk about why the industry itself interests you and show an awareness of current trends, whether in terms of books being bought or how they’re being promoted (e.g. Twitter and Instagram have become really important tools for publishers!).
Who should I address it to?
If the application is not being sent to a personal email, or if the job spec doesn’t say who you’re sending it to, then it can be tricky to know what to do. Saying ‘dear sir/madam (or just HI! in my case) seems horrendously impersonal, but what else can you do? WELL, if the job is listed/mention on Twitter, then reply to the tweeter asking who it should be addressed to. Even the general @JobsatHarper or @PRHCareers pages will have someone manning them to get back to you. Failing that, do you know someone working in that company/in that department/at that imprint? Send them a Twitter/LinkedIn message and ask if they know who you should send it to (and if they have any tips 😏). All that being said, not addressing it to a specific person isn’t the end of the world, and your job prospects won’t be affected by it at all.
Sarah: It’s nice if you know the name of the person doing the hiring, but it’s not critical and I’d never dismiss someone because they just wrote ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ or ‘Dear Hiring Manager’.
Fran: You should always address it to the person you are applying to. Try and find out who you will be reporting in to, as they will more often than not be that person. This can be hard, and if you’re going through a recruitment company, it’s not always possible. But a personalised covering letter is so much stronger than a “dear sir/madam”. Twitter and LinkedIn are your friends with this! You need to show you know about the company and the job – this is the quickest and easiest way to prove it.
OK, I’ve written it, what should I do now?
- SPELL CHECK. GRAMMAR CHECK. SPELL AND GRAMMAR CHECK AGAIN. If you’ve spelled anything wrong or written anything incorrectly there’s a good chance your application is going straight in the bin.
- Re-read the job spec. Have you specifically addressed what they’re asking for? If they’ve said “we want someone with great computer skills”, have you mentioned your computer skills? Or have you gone off on a tangent and talked about how you once ate a whole pizza in 3 minutes? Your cover letter needs to be tailored for EACH AND EVERY job you’re applying to (I know it’s a pain, but if you don’t do this then someone else applying will have!)
- Lydia: Experience is everywhere. It’s totally fine to have no previous “formal” publishing experience (it’s why you’re applying after all) but you probably do have publishing experience: from blogging, being part of #bookstagram, having an English Literature degree or even just being an avid and enthusiastic reader, it’s all part of the publishing world. Love for books is some of the most essential experience you can have, so make sure you let us know. (I REALLY like this one)
- Sarah: Get the company name right (!!!) – this sounds super obvious but I’ve opened up plenty of letters addressed to ‘John Black’, ‘John Barnes’ and sometimes a different publishing house entirely. Instant way to get your application rejected and letter deleted.
- Fran: Check it! Have someone else check it if you can. Trust me – bad spelling and grammar will do more damage than a lack of experience any day. Make sure it’s structured well and makes sense, and make sure it matches the job description. I call it “ticking the boxes”, but I genuinely do something like that – pulling out the key points in the job description, and ticking them off as I add them in to my covering letter. Check your figures if you’ve included them, and double check that your covering letter and CV match. It’s no good sending a great covering letter if your CV doesn’t hold up too.
YES! But I promise I’m almost finished. BIG well done on making it this far!
Here are Sam Missingham’s other #CVLetterTips, which are really useful:
Pretty good huh? Okay, what else?
Well, the Careers at Penguin blog has a couple of posts about cover letters (among other things) which are another good resource to have. Check out what makes a covering letter stand out and zoom in on the covering letter to see what they have to say for themselves.
Here are some final words from Sarah, Fran and Lydia which I couldn’t cram into the other headings:
- Sarah: Be enthusiastic – you want them to get a sense of how passionate you are about the job, and not only what the job would offer you, but what you’d offer it!
- Lydia: Be honest. We’re nice (I promise!) and understand that people have other commitments. If you’re applying for a 5 day a week internship, but realistically you’re going to struggle with this you can put forward an alternative and suggest fewer days or a shorter internship. While it may not always be possible there are quieter periods in publishing that this may be the perfect fit for and we appreciate both your honesty and the ability to manage your time and commitments.
- Fran: Do not be put off if you don’t have 100% of the experience. In a recent study, people in the most successful jobs, will go for a role even if they only have around 80% of the skills required. Jobs should always be a challenge, and you should always be learning. It’s up to you to prove to your employer that you are worth that investment – which, by the way, you are.
And now, THAT’S IT! I’M FINALLY DONE, 4241 WORDS LATER!
I know this is all A LOT to take in, but this is something you can refer to later on whenever you’re writing a letter and get stuck on something. So I hope that at least someone finds it useful, cos it’s taken me friggin’ ages!
If there’s anything you think is missing, any tips you want me to include or questions you want me to answer, as ever email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter. Sarah, Lydia and Fran’s Twitter accounts are all linked at the start when I first mentioned them, please go and follow them and show them your love! I know I will be. Now I am going to go and take a long hot bath to recover from writing this, you’re going to write the best covering letter of all time and we’ll all be happy! (Until the time comes when I do this ALL OVER AGAIN FOR CVS (this isn’t going to be for a while I am exhausted.))