If you're a copy editing nerd like I am, you'll be very pleased to know that there's a really interesting NPR Fresh Air podcast now available that just might change the way you think about writing cover letters, thank-you letters, and other rather formal (and quite painful) business and career correspondence.
The subject of the podcast is Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief of book publishing giant Random House. Dreyer, who has copy edited books by major authors such as E.L. Doctorow and Michael Chabon, has a new book of his own out entitled "Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide To Clarity And Style." In it, and in the aforementioned podcast, Dreyer passes along several editorial tips, one of which covers five words never to use in written communication: very, really, just, rather, and quite.
Five words which I used in the first sentence of this blog.
Yes, I used these words to help underline Dreyer's point. Which is that they are utterly useless. To test this out, I invite you to go back and read that first sentence without those five words ... Unnecessary, right? A waste of space and time, correct? A weaker sentence with than without, yes?
Dreyer, like any good copy editor, knows that strong writing is concise and clear. Ideally, when writing, you'll use as few words as possible to convey your message as clearly as possible. That said, Dreyer concedes there's a time and place in written communication for a "very" if you really need one. But chances are you don't need one. Chances are you're being shy when using "very." Dreyer recommends to "be a little bold" and "let [the adjective that very modifies] sit by itself."
Not incidentally, Dreyer says two other words you should kill from your writing are "that said" (two words which I used superfluously in the previous paragraph; Dryer calls this phrase and others like it nothing but "throat clearers").
How all this advice applies to cover letters, thank-you letters, and other business correspondence is this: Make sure that when you edit your job search and career correspondence, you remove all unnecessary words so you take up as little of your reader's time as possible. Another benefit is your writing will come across as stronger and more confident without them. And thus you will come across as a stronger and more confident candidate.
One way to remove these words is by using the "find" function to find and then delete all of the verys, quites, and reallys in your writing. Another way is to read your correspondence slowly, word by word, while asking yourself if each word is necessary. If it is, keep it. If not, delete.
Concise writing is especially important when it comes to cover letters, since recruiters spend little time on them. So, try to get across all that you can in under 20 seconds, maybe 10 if possible. And keep in mind that although an opening pleasantry like "I hope your week is going well" is fine, you want to get to the meat of your letter as fast as you can. So cut out the fat.
Finally, I want to point out that Dreyer isn't as editorially militant as some other editors and writers I've come across. For example, I was surprised to learn that Dreyer, unlike, say, Ernest Hemingway, doesn't despise adverbs. "I like adverbs very much," says Dryer. "I know that many people think that adverbs are dreadful. I use them all the time. In fact, there's that great, big, honking utterly in the subtitle of my book."
Dryer also concedes that when using the spoken word, his rules for writing don't always apply. A "really," "quite," or throat clearer like "in fact" can work well when speaking, he admits.
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Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway earned fame for writing short, declarative sentences. He also wrote long sentences using phrases and clauses linked by the conduction "and" and both his short and long sentences are ones we can learn from and take advice from, especially when it comes to writing our resumes.
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