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.

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