Crafting Winning Cover Letters (PRofessional Development Week)

Posted by Rachel Esterline on Mar 6, 2009 in Career, PRofessional Development Week, Public Relations, Resume, Writing

This post is a part of PRofessional Development Week. This special week, originally to last from March 2 to March 6, will be extended until next week. If you would like to contribute to this special week on A Step Ahead, e-mail Rachel.M.Esterline {at} Gmail.com.

Heather R. Huhman is the entry-level careers columnist for Examiner.com and the media relations manager at a national health care professional association.

You’ve heard it before, but I’ll say it again: Landing an internship or entry-level job is about who you know, what you know and how you show what you know. Your cover letter is a good tool for showcasing all three.

Hiring managers typically read your cover letter first. So, you really have to have them at “hello,” or the hard work you’ve put into your résumé won’t even matter.

· Use Arial or another sans-serif font. The size can be anything between 10pt and 12pt.

· Make sure your cover letter looks like a letter. You should develop a “letterhead” at the top that includes all of your contact information (including links to any professional, relevant social media profiles or blogs), followed by the current date and the organization’s name and address.

· If possible, address your letter to an actual person. Search the organization’s Web site, do a Google search, sweet-talk the receptionist, etc. If the position ad says not to call, that simply means the hiring manager does not wish to receive calls. So, when you reach the receptionist, do not ask for the individual—just his or her name and title. If you cannot track down the hiring manager’s name, personalize it as best you can—“Dear Public Relations Department Hiring Manager.”

· Believe it or not, your cover letter is about the company, not you—what you can do for the company and why you make a good fit for both the position and the organization.

· In your first paragraph, begin to tell your story, but don’t forget to include some vital information—what attracted you to that organization, the position for which you are applying and several characteristics/skills that make you the ideal candidate. Did an internal contact refer you to the position? Excellent—mention that here.

· Your second and third paragraphs, really show the employer (again, in a conversational, yet professional tone) that you can bring results. Using one example in each paragraph, outline a past accomplishment, why it was important at the time and why it would bring value to this position/organization.

· When sharing your accomplishments, try to be objective. There is a fine line between confidence and cockiness. You should share what you did in a way that showcases your strengths, but doesn’t give the impression that you think you are a superstar who doesn’t need any help or can’t see that your success is dependent upon others.

· Your cover letter should be crisp, clean and have plenty of white space. That means not a lot of adjectives describing you. Stick to the facts. Use statistics, percentages and numbers to quantify your experience.

· In your fourth (and final) paragraph, indicate you’ve enclosed your résumé (and any other requested supporting documents) for review. This is also where you’d list your salary requirements if mandatory.

· If you’re applying for a position not located near your “local” or “permanent” addresses, indicate that, while you currently reside in another area, you are extremely interested in relocating and will do so at your expense. Do you have an aunt or a friend that lives there already? Even better—mention local connections.

· Provide a phone number and e-mail address where you can be reached. Don’t make them hunt for it in your letterhead.

· Include a sentence about your plan to follow-up—and actually do it! For example, “If I do not hear from you beforehand, I will follow-up in one week.”

· Thank the hiring manager for his or her time and consideration, and close your letter with “sincerely,” “best,” etc. and your signature.

· When you are done, ask yourself, “Did I sound interesting, or did I sound like a taped message?”

· Always e-mail your cover letter as a PDF attachment, not in the body of your e-mail.

· If you are submitting your application via an online system, include your cover letter in the same document as your résumé. Don’t leave it off!

Heather R. Huhman is the entry-level careers columnist for Examiner.com and the media relations manager at a national health care professional association.

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5 Simple Writing Rules

Posted by Rachel Esterline on Jan 19, 2009 in journalism, Public Relations, Writing

The AP Stylebook along with various grammar and writing guides can be intimidating. Here are five simple writing rules you should be able to remember off the top of your head:

  1. Serial comma. It’s like serial murder. You shouldn’t do it and you should know better.
  2. I was thinking this! Exclamation marks are overused. Write well and you won’t need to exclaim.
  3. That isn’t necessary. In most situations, the word “that” can be cut from your copy.
  4. Check your spell check. Spell check doesn’t catch everything. The lighting hit the tree. Lightning hit the tree. The lightening hit the tree. According to spell check, all three of these sentences are correct.
  5. Don’t be passive. Active writing is stronger. Avoid using “is,” “are,” “was,” “were” and other passive verbs.

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PR Professionals and Their Role As A Storyteller

Posted by Rachel Esterline on Dec 1, 2008 in CMU PRM, Design, Public Relations, Writing

With my internship with CMU Public Relations and Marketing coming to an end, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned. Since last May, I have been writing for several CMU publications. Each publication has a different audience.

A Sample of Publications and their Audiences

  • Connections – Donors and volunteers
  • Centralight – Alumni
  • Reference Point – People who love CMU Libraries
  • Parent News – CMU parents
  • Counselor Connection – High school counselors
  • CMU Welcomes You – Recently accepted high school seniors

I’ve also done copywriting for advertisements, posters, brochures and Web sites.

The art of telling a story

I recently read Are you a storyteller? What is your story? by Think Maya. Her post inspired me to think about the role of a public relations professional as a storyteller.

In her post, Maya said, “When a story has nothing to do with me but is intense and engrossing, I insert myself in the story and come alive.”

As a PR professional, I need to find these stories. For Reference Point, I interviewed the artist Deborah Friedman and wrote an article called “Beneath the Orange Paint.” The article will be available on my Web site by mid-December. Friedman, who is from Detroit, started a series of paintings called “Claudene” after seeing the decayed homes in Detroit becoming covered in orange paint. It was a very interesting interview and is one of my favorite articles.

Maya also said stories need to evoke emotions. I think for any kind of PR work to be effective, it needs to evoke some type of emotion. Last summer I conceptualized and wrote the copy for an ad for CMU license plates for Centralight Magazine. You can see the PDF of the ad here.

When I was writing this ad and working with the graphic designer, I wanted it to evoke emotion in alumni (since that is the target audience of the magazine). The original copy was much longer, but Dan Digman helped me tighten it. The line says “On the road to where you’re going, remember where you’ve been.” The story I am telling is to remember your alma mater while you are advancing your career…because CMU helped get you there.

Stories “transport us away so gently into a different world, where we can ‘feel,'” Maya said.

The picture of the open road, I think, does this for the reader. This graphic was exactly what I had visualized and the designer, Amy Gouin, really did a great job.

No matter what the project is, as a PR professional I need to be able to tell the story, evoke emotion and transport the reader.

Related Posts:
Six Steps to Splendid Features
Ten Things I Learned as a Publications Intern
Alternative Story Forms: You don’t have to use the inverted pyramid every time
Getting The Most From Interviews
Ten Tips To Revising Drafts For Journalists and PR Professionals

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Six Steps To Splendid Features

Posted by Rachel Esterline on Oct 2, 2008 in Writing

For me, feature writing is fun. I enjoy writing features because they are a challenge. For large features, Neil Baker makes a feature plan. I think the plan is a great idea, but I have an entire writing process I generally go through for features. Here are my six steps to splendid features:

1. Brainstorm interview questions. I always come up with as many questions as possible–at least 20, even if they are slightly off-topic or strange.
2. Type questions and organize. It may seem a little OCD, but I feel more in control during interviews if I have the questions going in an order that makes sense and will flow. A print out of questions also is easier to read.
3. Use a voice recorder during the interview. It’s so much easier to listen and respond to your interviewee when using a recorder. I make notes in my notebook about key words and, when I hear a good quote, I look at my recorder and write down the time. And since you won’t be trying to scribble down those great quotes, you can actually think of follow-up questions you didn’t think of before.
4. Listen to the recorder with your fingers at the keyboard. After the interview is over, you’ll have a slight idea of the angle you want to write about. I always type up the quotes and information I’ll need to write the story.
5. Reorganize the information in a sensible way and complete the story. After typing up the basic information and quotes, it doesn’t take long to finish the feature.
6. Print, edit and repeat. A printed version is always easier to edit than the electronic version. I try to print and edit several times before sending it on to an editor.

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Ten Things I Learned As A Publications Intern

Posted by Rachel Esterline on Aug 29, 2008 in CMU PRM, Internships, Portfolio, Public Relations, Uncategorized, Writing

It feels weird not to be working for CMU Public Relations and Marketing every day. I miss it already. I’m really thankful that they are continuing my internship into the fall semester.

Here are ten things I learned as a publications intern, and I would like to thank every person at PRM for helping me learn so much over the past four months.

1. Adobe InDesign. When I started working with PRM, I had no idea how to use this program. I’ve now put together CMU Welcomes You, a tabloid for potential students and two flyers for the CMU/United Way Fund Drive.

2. Storytelling. I had been taught basic news writing in JRN 202. I could efficiently tell you the who, what, when, where, why and how. I could place quotes throughout the story. Dan constantly encouraged me to improve my writing by “telling the story.” Make it real. Make people go, “Wow. I want to know more about this person in the story.”

3. Write tight. Don’t waste any words. If you don’t need them, cut them. By removing the clutter, you can make the remaining words mean more to the reader.

4. Interviewing. What makes this person tick? How are they unique? I learned to ask questions beyond what the story required and then to listen to what people had to say to me. You’d be surprised at the number of the puzzle pieces of storytelling that would fall into your lap if.

5. Multiple entry points. People have busy lives. Write so they can scan the story and get the gist of what’s going on and introduce multiple entry points. Pull-quotes, boxes and subtitles are all easy, but effective ways of doing this.

6. Print it. I don’t know many hours I stared at a computer screen, trying to catch errors or rewrite a story. When you have a hard copy in front of you, you see the story in a new light.

7. Thin and trim. Quotes are a vital part of the story, but trim them down to the real meat. It will make it much more impactful if you paraphrase the less important information preceding the good quote.

8. Be active. Writing actively will engage your readers.

9. What’s next? Keep your writing relevant to your audience. Get them to ask, “What’s next?” and then give them the information they need.

10. Keep an open mind and be enthusiastic. I don’t know how many great portfolio pieces fell into my lap because of my positive attitude. Did I know how to design a tabloid and place ads, articles and photos? Certainly not. As a PR major, do I have much experience coming up with ad concepts? I didn’t, but I do now. I accepted any project they asked me to do, from writing copy to transcribing interviews. Some were certainly more fun than others, but my attitude, enthusiasm and drive is what opened doors for many great projects.

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Is Google best? Maybe not, according to SABEW speaker

Posted by Rachel Esterline on Aug 16, 2008 in Research

NU Access posted a link to several videos from the 45th Annual Conference of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

One video was about how Google isn’t necessarily the best search engine for all things. Dan and I were discussing Google last week.

The speaker suggested tryingIce Rocket, Pipl, Hurisearch, and Domain Tools. Ice Rocket didn’t seem too bad. I searched “PRSSA” and one of my own posts popped up…along with some posts having nothing to do with PR (unless you’re Samantha from Sex and the City). I think I’ll stick with Google.

There are also short videos about entrepreneurship, health insurance coverage, social networking in business reporting, and more.

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Alternative Story Forms – You don’t have to use the inverted pyramid every time

Posted by Rachel Esterline on Aug 13, 2008 in Editing, Writing

By now you probably think I am obsessed with News University. The truth is, it’s a great resource.

I’m the kind of person who wants to learn more about my industry. I want to be more than good…I want to be great. A Web site like News University is great because, (1) it’s free, (2) it’s put together by industry professionals, (3) it’s interesting and interactive.

The first course I took through News U was “Beyond the Inverted Pyramid: Creating Alternative Story Forms.” I really wish we had learned about these in my journalism class last fall. The inverted pyramid has its place and is important, but today’s audience needs more sometimes.

Types of Alternative Story Forms
(In the course, this is a cool table of elements/science graphic)
Also note that the explanations were not working for the standalone categories.


  • Interview
  • Breakdown
  • FAQ
  • Vingette
  • Grid
  • Comic Panels
  • Snapshot
  • How-to
  • Recap
  • Preview
  • Game
  • Bracket


  • Q&A – anticipates reader’s questions
  • Quiz – same as Q&A-anticipates reader’s questions
  • Timeline – focuses on the important moments
  • Calendar – itineraries
  • By the #’s – good for statistic heavy articles
  • Top lists – collects and organizes information


  • If you go – box telling how to participate in event, uses who, what, when, where
  • Tips – bulleted list giving advice
  • Pros and Cons – grid format, allows reader to compare
  • What’s next – adds a “forward-looking tone to your coverage”
  • Breakout – summarizes main point or details of story
  • Updates – lists latest developments, often used onlie
  • Characters – short bio containing the “role” a person in the story
  • Glossaries – list defining terms for complicated, jargon-filled stories
  • Story so far – textbox giving the the background information on the story – like a movie flashback
  • Bio box – can include the basics and sometimes trivia-type facts (favorite book, etc)

Several Great Examples of Alternative Story Forms

Read More About Alternative Storytelling

A Simple PDF About ASF’s with Examples

And through my Google search, I came across the blog of Andy Bechtel, the person who created this course.

On a final note, looking through this month’s “Allure,” I noticed several ASF’s.

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Getting the most from interviews

Posted by Rachel Esterline on Aug 13, 2008 in Public Relations, Writing

Interviews seem to be a daily activity in my field. I generally prepare as many questions I can think of before even contacting the source. I like to be prepared.

For the past 30 minutes, I have been on an interactive course at News University. The course was pretty simplistic, but it served as a nice reminder of how I should conduct interviews. The course is simple enough for a junior high school student-and interactive enough to keep their attention span.

Here are a few interviewing tips I was reminded of through the course:

  • Be prepared. Figure out what you and your audience need to know before the interview.
  • Ask open-ended questions. You want them to give you an answer that tells the story, not a simple “yes” or “no.”
  • Be conversational. If you seem like you are interrogating them, their responses might not be what you are looking for.
  • Listen and be patient. If you cut your source off, you might here that great quote they were working towards.
  • Off the record. They say something great…and then tell you that it is “off the record.” Ask if you can use a specific part of the quote or try to otherwise convince them you need it, if it really is a necessary quote. Or, you can ask if you can use it “on background,” meaning you would define the Professor Joe as a university employee. It’s a win-win for you and the source. You get your quote and the source is unidentified.

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Ten tips to revising drafts for journalists and PR professionals

Posted by Rachel Esterline on Aug 13, 2008 in Editing, Freelancing, Public Relations, Writing

I recently completed a free online course called “Get Me Rewrite: The Craft of Revision” through News University. As a writer and a public relations professional, the course helped focus me for revisions.

No writer is perfect. How many different drafts do you go through when writing?

I usually go through two or three. It really depends on my deadline though. If time is of the essence, then I am less likely to rewrite several times.

Here are my tips for writers stemming from this course:

  1. Remember that you are revising to make your writing better—it doesn’t mean it was necessarily bad. Just because it isn’t bad, doesn’t mean it can’t be better.
  2. Print it out. There are so many blatant errors you miss just from looking at the draft on your computer screen.
  3. Read through it and just make little marks or circles where something doesn’t sound quite right. Don’t fix it right away. Keep reading and marking until the end. Then start making the changes. 
  4. Staring at a printed version and have no idea what to do? Set it aside and work on something else for awhile. 
  5. Read it aloud. If you trip over parts of your copy, you might want to rewrite it. 
  6. Look for passive voice and adverbs to edit. The course has a tool called Word Painter. It “paints” passive voice and adverbs for you. 
  7. Have someone else read it. A fresh set of eyes can give you new ideas.
  8. Try the course tool called “Sentence Tracker.” It will show you a graph of the length of your sentences and paragraphs. It helps show the pace and flow of your writing. 
  9. Take down the scaffolding, what the instructor describes as the words that help us get started writing. Go ahead and start your first draft with “This story is about…”, build onto the story and by the end you can start taking the scaffolding down. 
  10. Write tight. That’s actually a tip from Dan, but this course suggested using the 10 percent rule. Take your first draft and cut 10 percent.
“When I see a paragraph shrinking under my eyes like a strip of bacon in a skillet, I know I’m on the right track.”
—Peter DeVries

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Working Hard on a Saturday

Posted by Rachel Esterline on Aug 2, 2008 in CMU PRM, Pro Bono, Public Relations

Today I spent four hours working on brochure copy for my pro bono client. They have several brochures in need of updating. I saw the need and contacted them, offering free services.

I’m really excited about it because redoing these brochures will really make a difference for this non-profit. Their brochure about giving is very wordy and confusing. They actually hired a professional to do it back during their capital campaign.

My internship has been great. I’m working on CMU Welcomes You again. I am basically redoing the design and format. Dan said what I have is great, and now that we have that version to fall back on, I can go ahead and change things to make it more engaging.

It’s been quite interesting, considering the fact that I had never used Adobe InDesign before accepting this internship. I’ve picked up a lot though. I think my experience with Microsoft Publisher helped. I brought home a print-out of CMU Welcomes You to look at this weekend. We are trying to make it more engaging. The publication goes to potential students, meaning many of the recipients are high school seniors with the attention span of a goldfish. Most won’t bother to read anything that doesn’t look remotely interesting.

Looking at the few pages I have already redesigned, I think I’m heading the right way. I might try tracking down some people to test the publication. If they can tell me where I lose their attention, I might be able to fix it.

I have a new assignment at work as well. It’s a contest, but that’s about all the details I can give right now. I’ll be writing copy for the posters, a press release, and Web copy. I might even try designing the poster. We have graphic designers in the office, but they are so busy with other projects. I would love to give it a try. I’m going to have to pick up a book on Adobe InDesign though. I have some good ideas…

I have finished my biology class (with a B!) and I’ve got less than a month before I go back to school. Until then, I’ll be working full-time for CMU Public Relations and Marketing. I absolutely love working there.

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