I have been thinking today whether the exhortation that I give on this blog “show me your city block” holds up for cover letters.
I originally wrote the post about statements of purpose because they are a type of labor that I offer to do for free, but I am just realizing that I almost never get asked to read cover letters. I find this remarkable given that I get asked to look at resumes weekly…which I will have you know, I no longer DO for free after reading Tim Kreider’s lament about nonpayment for writing, speaking and other intellectual endeavors in today’s world (“Slaves of the Internet, Unite!,” Sunday Review, Oct. 27).
However, it is striking that people do not seem to be sharing cover letters (at least not with me). And I think cover letters get a bad rap. I hear them being spoken about openly with contempt, and I know this is because they are hard, but I also think this could be owing to a lack of appreciation for what they do when they are done well.
For the rest of this blog post, I am going to have a conversation with “show me your city block post” adapting what I said about statements of purpose to whether they say what I think matters when I make it be about a cover letter – I welcome your thoughts!!
What can make a cover letter compelling is when the author can contextualize jobs (the job you are applying for or ones that you have held in past) as steps to realizing a broader professional vision. As a reader, you can see how this step was just the next logical progression in the expression of her goals.
editorial note here: I think that it is harder for an employer to hear you as a candidate talk about your vision for how this job will set you up for future jobs after you are through with this job that you are seeking new. This is changing if Reid Hoffman has anything to say about it – he identifies this as a necessary change in the relationships between employers and employees in his new book The Alliance. However, as you are probably not going to change this with your cover letter, perhaps best to show how your previous jobs have been the steps that led you to this one. Same process: different timescale and temporal deixis: look back to understand present. Rather than looking to the future.
Show us the world though your eyes
When someone is deciding about whether or not they want to hire you, they want to see the world through your eyes, and what they most want is to have a sense for how you feel about what you see! What makes you empassioned? Why? We talk about this in improv as creating a filter or a lens for your character. There are certain things that only you will notice in the first place because of who you are and what your experiences have been. Once you have noticed them, how do you react to them – what do you make of those things that you notice. What do they mean? WHY?
I say this piece holds up!! This works in thinking about a cover letter!!!!
So let’s think about that city block for a moment:
I grabbed this photo from a site that I found called Living City Block because I realized that I saw things here that were informed by my own recent experiences of looking for a condo. Because of my budget, I have been restricted to looking at small floor-plans, mainly studios, and because I am buying rather than renting, I wanted a space that would suit my priorities in the long term. I had to articulate my thoughts about HOW I want to use my living space now and going forward. When it came down to it, I realized that I need a quiet place in which I can write. In a studio, depending on the layout of the building, I could have up to five noisy neighbors with whom I will have to share a wall (or ceiling or floor). Consequently, one of the first things that I now notice about buildings now is how the floor is broken up and how far apart the windows are as a quick point of reference for how the building is laid out. Even before I walk into a building, I try to deduce from the window configuration how big the units are and how they are oriented relative to one another. So, when I looked at this city block, the first thing that I saw was how much further apart the windows in the building in the foreground were as compared to the taller one in the background. I bet this wasn’t the first thing that you noticed!
So take a minute and think about what you see here.
Maybe you ride a bike, so you notice the bike lanes. Maybe you are drawn to big cities like New York City or London, so you notice that these buildings are not highrises or that the sidewalks seem relatively empty. Maybe you hate spending time in a city, so you are drawn to anything that reminds you of green things growing: the trees. Maybe you are an architect, or a visual artist, so what jumps out at you when you look at this picture are the qualities of the artistic rendering. Whatever it is, get some of it down on paper to see what why you see what you see means.
Show don’t tell!
A classic exhortation for writers, this is how you do it and why it is important.
For a great example of an MLCer who has done this particularly well, check out Katie McIntyyre’s: The five object that tell my story
Wow, OK so now this is becoming a pretty one-sided conversation, but yeah – this holds up too!!! Cover letters should SHOW not tell and they should SHOW us something about how you see. Perhaps in a cover letter, the target is a bit different, you perhaps want to be talking about what you see at the organization that tells you you might want to work there, what you do NOT see at the organization that tells you why they need you. Perhaps instead of the “city block” then, you are showing the potential employer some scenes from a workplace. Perhaps you want to place yourself into these images?
Can you give me some theory?
Charles Goodwin explores this his Professional Vision using the example of a patch of dirt. To a farmer and an archaeologist, the same patch of dirt will yield different information because of how the dirt is being scrutinized and why:
An event being seen, a relevant object of knowledge, emerges through the interplay between a domain of scrutiny (a patch of dirt, the images made available by the King videotape, etc.) and a set of discursive practices (dividing the domain of scrutiny by highlighting a figure against a ground, applying specific coding schemes for the constitution and interpretation of relevant events, etc.) being deployed within a specific activity (arguing a legal case, mapping a site, planting crops, etc.).
Can never get enough Goodwin!!
So yeah, I guess that alot of what I had to say about statements of purpose are indeed applicable to cover letters!!!
Our ways of seeing are entirely shaped by who we are, what we value, and what we do with our lives. Use the patch of dirt, the city block, you in the office, or whatever object or experience you chose to talk about to highlight and articulate your passions, your skills, your values.
And when you have figured out a way to tell your story, tell it to me! 🙂