How to write a cover letter: a procedure based on Cognitive Work Analysis

I took a class on Cognitive Work Analysis from Dr. John D. Lee here at the UW. I found it very interesting. A friend was asking me for help writing cover letters, specifically how to edit it down to be short enough. I don’t have a lot of experience writing cover letters per se, but I wrote this procedure based on CWA. I’d be interested in feedback, of course.

  1. Write the letter without worrying about brevity. It’s always normal to write something too long first, and then cut it down in the next rounds of editing.
  2. Make a new document (or just add text at the end of this one, or whatever works for you) and copy and paste each sentence as its own individual bullet point in a list. Don’t worry about sentence structure or whether the sentences themselves are too long; you’re just making a list of each fact or item you’re saying about yourself.
  3. Go through the list of points and separate them out into two lists: (a) Critical points that you really want to make sure they notice about you right away (it’s OK if some or all of those points are also in your resume); and (b) everything else, i.e. not critical.
  4. Go through the “not critical” list and check each item against your resume. If an item is already in your resume, then delete it from the letter. If it is not already in your resume, then copy it over into a third list called “Decide what to do”.
  5. Now you have two lists: the “critical” list, and the “decide what to do” list. (You already deleted everything else.) Everything in the “critical” list stays in the letter, obviously.
  6. Go through the “decide” list point-by-point. For each point, decide if you want to add it to your resume, or if you want to add it to your letter, or if it’s just not important. Or maybe it’s really important and you add it to the letter AND you add it to your resume. As you do this, keep in mind how much space you have left in the letter.
  7. Now go back to the letter and adjust the sentence structure and paragraph structure to make it flow again.
  8. Take a step back and look at the letter. Is it short enough now? If so, then you’re done! If it’s still too long, can you make your sentences shorter and clearer?
  9. If you can’t make it short enough with basic editing, then repeat this procedure from the beginning, but focus more on the question of what’s really critical. You have to decide on what’s critical, on the basis of how much space you actually have. If you’re trying to fit in 5 critical points but you only have room for 3, then you have to ask yourself: Since I only have room for 3, which are my top 3? If you ask yourself the question in that way, then you will almost certainly be able to pick your top 3. (Or whatever number you have room for.)
  10. If you have trouble separating out the critical points from the less critical points, then try this: Make the list of points, then write them out in rank order from most critical to least critical. Just do it quick-and-dirty, don’t worry about getting the order exactly right. Then show that ranked list to someone else, along with the job description. Almost anyone will be able to give you good feedback on whether your ranking makes sense for that job description.

Dharma dog piano therapy

I was trying to remember where I heard this story and I finally found it. It’s from Warrior King of Shambhala by Jeremy Hayward.

During Rinpoche’s visit to New York, an event occurred which is a beautiful illustration of Rinpoche’s use of humor to break through to the heart of his students. Madeline Bruser, a talented young concert pianist and piano teacher, was already a student of Rinpoche, though she had not yet met him. Madeline tells this story of the first time she met him:

I had offered to play for him during his stay in New York and he accepted. So, one evening, I went to his suite, where about a dozen of us were gathered. When he entered the room, I felt so relaxed in his presence that I walked right up to him and said, “Hello, I’m going to play for you tonight.” And he said, “Oh! You’re going to play with me!” After several minutes of silence punctuated by a few bits of conversation between him and all of us, he walked slowly over to the piano, sat down, and started slapping at the keys as though it were a big joke. I began to feel quite nervous. Then he said, “Now YOU play,” and he stood up. I sat down at the piano, but he remained standing. Aren’t you going to sit down?” I asked him. And instead of sitting down, he picked up his little dog and stood next to the piano, waiting for me to begin. Since he was standing, everyone else had to stand also.

I launched into a dramatic performance of Beethoven’s deeply serious “Sonata in A-flat,” Opus 110. The lid of the piano was slightly raised, and soon after I started to play, Rinpoche put his dog—a very cooperative and furry lhasa apso—on the piano. Over and over, the dog slowly slid down the slanted lid as I continued to huff and puff my way through Beethoven’s intense, lofty, lyrical first movement. At times, instead of putting the dog back onto the piano, Rinpoche beat the time with one hand, making more of a joke out of the music. The twelve guests giggled, and I felt humiliated yet exhilarated. At one moment I tried to challenge him by looking directly and boldly at him, but he just peered over his glasses at me and left me feeling completely powerless.

Suddenly, a minute or so into the rollicking second movement, something switched. I found myself playing with an amazing freedom and energy that I’d never known was possible. The music leapt out of me and burst brilliantly into the room like a force of nature. It was tremendously liberating, and I noticed that Rinpoche was now holding his dog and listening attentively. I played with this total abandon for about two minutes, but it was so disorienting that I reverted back to my habitual overblown approach, and Rinpoche gave the dog more rides down the piano lid. Thus went a twenty-minute performance of one of the most profound pieces of music ever written. Beethoven and I had come into contact with an enlightened audience. The next day, I could no longer play the old way. I had received the best piano lesson of my life from a man who never played the instrument.