In writing cover letters, as in any other type of writing, we frequently hear about “active” voice versus “passive.” For those of you who have forgotten English 101, here’s a refresher: a sentence in which the subject is the agent of the action is considered “active.” Examples:
Harvey killed John.
I supervised the crew.
When the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action, it is considered “passive.”
John was killed by Harvey.
The crew was supervised by me.
It may seem like a tiny little detail. After all, both sets of sentences say the same thing – right?
Not necessarily, especially when it comes to cover letters and resumes.
The focus of an effective cover letter and resume is supposed to be you, and what you’ve done. And when writing job search documents, you want to keep peoples’ attention on those facts. The best way to do that is to use action verbs and active sentences, so you are emphasizing yourself as the ‘agent of action’ – in other words, demonstrating that you are a person who gets things done.
While a cover letter is a form of “sales pitch,” it differs from a typical sales pitch in some very significant ways. One of these ways is in its vocabulary. Some manuals of sales suggest that in many contexts, a “soft-sell” approach, in which the salesperson expresses and demonstrates a certain empathy with the customer, is the best methodology. The use of terms such as “I think,” “I feel,” or “I believe” are often recommended.
When it comes to selling yourself to an employer, you do not want to “believe” or “feel.” You want to “know.” You want to be “certain.” Words such as believe and feel have their place, but not in the workplace. The employer wants someone who “knows” what s/he is doing, not someone who “thinks” they know what are doing.
Using action words and sentences in your cover letter ensures this gets across in no uncertain terms.
Look at these examples:
“I produced $3M in sales for Company A in 2010.”
“$3M in sales was produced by me for Company A in 2010.”
Notice the difference? Both sentences state the same fact, but the first sentence shows the writer takes responsibility and is confident without sounding arrogant. The second sentence is more flat, and less confident.
Which way would you rather have your cover letter sound?
More information on writing cover letters can be found throughout this blog and website. Visit CoverLetterCentral.com for sample cover letters.
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