Many of the speakers sharing time with me at university career events are human resources (HR) staff for science employers. Whenever I have the chance, I sit down for a cup of coffee with these colleagues and ask how my readers' applications can stand out -- in a good way -- among the huge stacks of incoming curricula vitae (CVs).
There's one answer these professional resumé readers always give: good, unpretentious writing. A crucial goal in preparing an application packet, they say, is to ensure that the language doesn’t get in the way of clear communication. The words you use shouldn’t draw attention. Just as a driver forgets about a clean windshield, the reader ought to see right through your words and on to the meaning they contain. A few errors in punctuation, or a run-on sentence, and attention shifts from the meaning to the words -- just as a few splattered bugs cause you to notice a dirty windshield that obscures what's outside. Your goal in writing anything -- including a cover letter -- should be to make the writing disappear.
"Clear and succinct rules the day, both on resumés and cover letters," a vice president of human resources at a large Canadian pharmaceutical company tells me. And one secret to clear, inconspicuous cover letters is to limit jargon. "While it's okay and expected on CVs, you should watch how much technical jargon you use on the cover letter. These are read by nontechnical staff."
It's easy to believe that what's on your CV -- not the words but the experience and accomplishments those words document -- is all that matters in the job search. And it's true that you won't get far in applying for, say, a Ph.D.-level ethanol fermentation scientist position if you don't have fermentation skills. But at the point of entry, the cover letter is as crucial as the CV and its contents. Readers from HR will spend more time on your CV if your cover letter is written clearly. And if they spend more time on it, they're more likely to send it along to the next stage. If they don't send it along you don't get hired. It's that simple.
Recently, I read a new book on grammar and punctuation and laughed out loud as I read it -- something I never did with William Strunk's 1918 classic, The Elements of Style , which was required reading in my journalism classes. The book I read recently is Punctuation at Work  (AMACOM, 2010), by Richard Lauchman. I interviewed Lauchman, who also leads workshops on the subject, seeking more insight into the importance of clear language in a job application.
"When someone doesn't know you, they form an impression of you from your writing. And the cover letter is what makes the first impression. ... I think everyone would agree that the impression you leave with a possible employer is something worth time and consideration," Lauchman says. "The cover letter is a business-critical document that is generally only briefly scanned, so it requires instant clarity. Of course, you have to pay attention to sentence length and word choice -- but pay attention to your punctuation as well. The marks frequently make or break the clarity of any expression."
In writing this article, I examined many cover letters and CVs to find a few real-world examples of direct, clear phrasing and good punctuation -- and of writing mistakes that lead to failure. What follows is a highly selective list of problems often seen in job-related correspondence.
Trying to sound smart but actually sounding pompous: Don't use words in a cover letter that you would never use in daily conversations. Substitute clear language and you immediately see an improvement in the impact. Which reads best? (Here's a hint: It's not the first.)
I would be pleased to further elucidate my extensive experience in the field at a mutually agreeable time.
I'd love to hear from you any time to answer your questions about my experience in the field.
Including unnecessary words and punctuation: There's no way a short article like this can cover all the rules of commas, participial phrases, and other bits of grammar and usage that would be esoteric if they weren't so important. That's what books like Punctuation at Work are for. Lots of things are wrong with the opening phrase in the sentence below, including a participial phrase that doesn't modify the grammatical subject -- but the main thing is that the phrase doesn't need to be there. So take the simple path and eliminate words.
As a young scientist, my boss wanted me to concentrate on a very specific assay.
My first boss wanted me to concentrate on a very specific assay.
Too long and run-on sentences: Job applications are usually too wordy, and some contain run-on sentences. Run-on sentences join together two independent clauses -- phrases that have all the ingredients of a complete sentence -- usually with a comma. The cure is to break the sentence in two, replacing the comma with a period. Furthermore, anything that makes a sentence longer than it ought to be -- including words that aren't essential -- makes a sentence harder to parse. In describing your accomplishments, the most effective approach is simple and clear. Which is better?
The cellulosic ethanol process we developed was unique because it did not require multiple processing steps and the use of expensive laboratory-modified enzymes, the ethanol bioprocessing system uses significantly less water and energy in ethanol production resulting in larger yields per ton of biomass.
The cellulosic ethanol process we developed was unique because it did not require multiple processing steps and the use of expensive laboratory-modified enzymes. Our process uses significantly less water and energy than established processes, resulting in larger yields per ton of biomass.
Also note that sometimes -- as in the second sentence above -- you really do need a comma even if the rules of writing don't require it. Without the comma after "processes" the sentence could be read two ways.
Lack of focus: You won't find this problem discussed in the Strunk or Lauchman texts; yet I consider it to be issue number one for job seekers. In describing their skills, many scientists want to catalog every fact that might be relevant. Instead, a tight focus is needed, one that points the reader toward the most relevant parts of your experience. Here are two cover letter paragraphs for an ad seeking an "Experienced scientist with both fermentation and analysis experience." Which is best?
I have a strong knowledge of microbial genetics and physiology as well as recombinant protein production. My background has included: PCR, gene synthesis, cloning, codon optimization, site-directed mutagenesis, chromosomal gene integration/deletion, albumin fusion, fermentation using NBS BioFlo3000, SDS-PAGE, Coomassie staining, and Western blotting.
I have more than 5 years experience in microbial genetics, physiology, fermentation, and recombinant protein production. At ABC Biotech, I've created expression vectors and host strains using methods such as PCR, gene synthesis, cloning, codon optimization, albumin fusion, site-directed mutagenesis, and chromosomal gene integration/deletion. My protein-analysis skills include SDS-PAGE, Coomassie staining, and Western blotting.
Although the second version is a few words longer -- generally not a good thing -- it is written to answer the job ad, whereas the first version is a generic listing of skills and techniques. Because it directly answers the ad, the second version moves the resumé into the "must talk to" pile, which is all you can hope for.
Punctuation may be used to call attention to certain words or phrases, but its most important role is to guide the reader in interpreting text. Lauchman says punctuation originated to show the stops, pauses, and emphasis of speech.
After the spell checker has done its job, I always read my work aloud -- the final quality check. It's far easier to spot an unnecessary comma, an odd choice of grammar, or a good place for an emdash when you hear it out loud. Listen for sound, rhythm, meaning, and the impact of your words. Are you answering that subtle question, "What can you do for me?"
If your first language isn't English, writing clearly in English is likely to be more difficult. If you lack a native speaker's feel for English, share your work with someone you trust.
When submitting an application package, particularly through HR (which is the traditional approach), more than your technical credentials are on display. HR gatekeepers are charged with ensuring that you have the right technical skills and are also capable of getting your message across.
"I generally read the cover letter, and if I'm intrigued I'll spend a few additional minutes with the CV," my Canadian HR friend says. As I've argued in other Tooling Up articles, the cover letter is where you stake your claim to the title "problem solver." To succeed at that, you have to write clearly and effectively, making your reader aware of your prowess not as a word spinner but as a problem solver. The words disappear. The message stands alone, with clarity and impact.
One error in punctuation, or one opaque phrase, may not cause you to miss out on a job opportunity. But it might. Whether it does or not, good, inconspicuous writing can be the difference between a job offer and a dismissive glance at your cover letter and CV.