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by Derek Loosvelt | October 13, 2020

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Cover letters are like first impressions. They’re often the first things employers see in your applications. So your cover letters need to be strong. They also need to be short. Recruiters have busy schedules. They don’t have time to read page-long cover letters.

Ideally, your cover letters will be not be longer than three short paragraphs. Any longer than that and you risk your letters will go unread—and your applications will not be considered.

So, to help you write more concise cover letters, here are four tricks that will tighten up your prose.

1. Use as few words as possible

Once you’ve written a draft of your cover letter, read it closely word by word, looking for phrases and groups of words you can rewrite using fewer words. For example, phrases like “have a significant impact” can be shortened to “significantly impact.” Also, “as well as” can usually be “and.” And “for the most part” can be “mostly.” You get the idea. Hunt for ways to use fewer words, as few as possible. Treat it like a game. Your writing will benefit, as will your application.

Another way to cut the number of words in your cover letters is to use contractions. “I am” can be “I’m.” “I would” can be “I’d.” Using contractions doesn’t make your writing informal; it makes it conversational and easier to read.

2. Cut superfluous words

Another way to tighten your cover letters is to remove words that don’t add anything. For example, the following words are unnecessary in most sentences: “both,” “just,” “actually,” “currently,” “really,” “very,” “definitely,” and “completely.” If you find one of these words when editing your cover letters, read the sentence without the word and ask, Am I still getting across the same idea without the word? You’ll find that, in most cases, you are. And so you can hit the delete key, further tightening up your letter.

Another word that can often be cut is “today.” You'll find it at the beginning of sentences: “Today, I'm writing you to express my interest ...” In this case, along with “today,” “you” can be cut: “I'm writing to express my interest ...”

Also, beware of “I believe.” These two words can usually be cut. For example, “I believe that I am a very hard worker” can be reduced to “I’m a hard worker” or “I’m hardworking.”

3. Use simpler words

Do you use words like “utilize” and “purchase” instead of “use” and “buy” because you think they make you sound smarter, your writing better? The truth is they do the opposite. They make you sound like you’re reaching, like you’re a weak writer. So, when in doubt, always use the simple word.

An added benefit is a simple, shorter word takes less time to read than a longer word. Yes, the time is just a fraction of a second, but those fractions add up. And if your cover letter has too many “utilizes,” “purchases,” “moreovers,” “howevers,” and “diligents,” recruiters will grow tired and set it (and you) aside.

4. Split long or clunky sentences into two sentences

When you’re editing your cover letter and come across a sentence that’s long, awkward, or clunky, try splitting it into two sentences. This will often clarify what you’re trying to get across and tighten up your prose.

Here’s an example of a long, clunky sentence: “During my tenure with Rondo & Rondo Corp., the company’s annual revenues have increased by 200 percent to $2 million, and I have progressed from having very little client contact to interacting with the client side of the business on a regular basis.”

Here’s an example of what happens when you split it into two (and make a few other edits): “During my time with Rondo & Rondo, I progressed from having little client contact to interacting regularly with clients. Also in that time, the firm’s annual sales increased by 200 percent to $2 million.”

A quick spellcheck tells you that the original two sentences included 43 words and 208 characters; the edited version includes 34 words and 170 characters. That is, the edited version is about 20 percent shorter.

A final note

The above tips can be applied to more than cover letters. They can also be applied to resumes, LinkedIn profiles, networking emails, work emails, grad school applications, and more. No matter what you’re writing, it’s never a bad idea to tighten your prose, using as few words as possible to get across a statement, idea, or concept. Readers want clear, concise writing—and will reward you for it by reading all the way to the end.

If you're new to writing cover letters and don't know where to start, check out these clear and concise two-minute videos: Cover Letter BasicsTips for Writing Better Cover Letters, and Selling Yourself in Your Cover Letter.

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