Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I'm dating again (not really; it just feels like it)

Getting back into the job market is akin to returning to the dating circuit after a divorce or the death of a spouse. With either, the goal is making a good first impression.

As a result, I’ve agonized over cover letters. I’ve developed a near-phobia about them.

They’re the equivalent of putting on your Sunday best for that first date. Not too flashy or too buttoned up but a Goldilocks just right.

As with dating, I feel the pressure to measure up. After all, I was laid off from a newspaper this year, as were more than 13,000 other journalists. And we're all answering the same ads or contacting the same (safe for now) publications about new jobs.

Joe Grimm (right), a former recruiter for The Detroit Free Press, now teaches reporting and writing as a visiting professor at the School of Journalism at Michigan State University. Author of several books, he has a blog at Poynter Online, part of the Poynter Institute in Florida that trains journalists and studies journalism, and operates a Web site aimed at helping journalists -- veterans and new graduates -- get jobs.

He acknowledges the difficulty many applicants have with cover letters to accompany resumes: “You want your letter to stand out from the rest, but you don’t want to go over the edge -- of someone’s desk,” he advises in a short post titled “Killer cover letters.”

He then offers a couple of good examples of first sentences meant to catch the eye of a prospective editor: “I’ll eat anything for a good story” (the writer taste-tested edible insects for a feature piece) and “They said it couldn’t be done, but I did it” (meeting deadline when the phones and computers died).

Another of his posts promises “Cover letters: sample opening lines,” and although he offers some, Grimm also chastises readers to do their own work. “Use them to get your creative juices going,” he advises, “then go write your own cover letter.”

For many years, I was on the receiving end of cover letters and didn’t think twice about the agony their authors might have experienced. I’d quickly skim them, then jump to the resume, where the real meat was. If I saw something there I liked, I’d go back to the cover letter to check for typos and syntax errors. After all, I was looking for a good writer as well as a reporter or editor.

Did flair register? If there were any nuggets in those cover letters, I can’t recall them now. Too bad. They, too, might have gotten my creative juices flowing.

Enough stalling then. Time to get on with the day’s cover letter(s). May the force be with me.

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