Monday, July 1, 2013

How to Lose a Job Before You Get It:

Cover Letters and the Consequences of Lacking Rhetorical Awareness

As I wrote about in my last post, I've been working part-time at an IT company as a technical writer for the summer. One of the tasks that have been entrusted to me as part of the technical writing team is to filter through applications for a full-time entry-level technical writer. I thought that choosing between the qualified candidates would be a difficult task. Instead, finding a qualified individual has been the harder job. It's shocking how many people claim "excellence in written communication," yet fail miserably at effectively communicating.

There are several composing models that I could use to think about these issues. I could consider Flower and Hayes' thoughts on defining a rhetorical problem-- better writers see more layers. I could consider Lloyd Bitzer's theories on about exigences, audiences, and constraints. These applications are ineffective because they seem to only consider exigence, the problem. I'd even argue that some of them are not consider exigence completely. They are considering their problem or purpose for writing-- finding a job. What is clear is that these applicants do not possess rhetorical awareness. Their focus is too narrow and sometimes inflexible.

So, let me share some of the things NOT to do when writing a cover letter, especially if you are writing a cover letter for a technical-writing position:
  • Do NOT read only part of the job application. Read the whole thing!!! I will say that 9/10 cover letters that I received did not fulfill the requirements listed on the job posting. If you can't follow simple directions and did not read an entire short ad, I will have to assume you will be just as careless with your work if hired. If we're talking rhetorical concepts, I definitely am doubting your ethos.
  • Do NOT explain how this job would just be a 9-5 to fill your pockets so that you can commit to other aspirations, such as working for another company or financing a book project. I am not looking to hire someone who does not really care about the job. I am not looking to spend my time training someone who will leave as soon as they can. I am not looking to build your portfolio. I am looking for someone who wants to do the job for which they are applying and do it well. Consider your audience. 
  • With that said, do NOT tell me everything this company can do FOR YOU. You are supposed to show me what you can do for the company. I do not care if I can provide you with the education necessary to get you into your actual dream job. As a matter of fact, like I said before, I'm not going to waste my time on you if you've already told me you want to move on as soon as you've learned enough. People who send me lists of ways the company can help them are clearly not considering the rhetorical problem/situation/ecology in any complex way. They are thinking only of their own problems, not of what prompted the job ad in the first place-- a need for a qualified, dedicated applicant.
  • Do NOT send a cookie-cutter letter, especially if it's only three lines long with a note telling me to call you. An obvious lack of effort will never be a positive selling point. Plus, hiring managers are usually employees who have other tasks to do outside looking for a new employee. In other words, I'm busy. I'm not tracking you down to chat. Tell me what I need to know, and then I might be interested in learning more. Make a logical argument for why you fit this position in this particular context.
  • Do NOT forget to proofread. If you are trying to claim excellence in editing and proofreading, you look [insert a whole slew of negative attributes here] when you leave typos in your cover letter and/or resume.

Usually, I like to think about composing through a broader, more complex ecological framework. I could talk about all of the other issues that may affect composing processes-- who is typing their cover letter on an iPhone, who has been hit hardest by economic decline, etc. In this case, though, simply remembering to consider three things-- the task they are being asked to perform, the audience they are being asked to address, and the limitations of what they can share with that audience-- would have helped these writers immensely.

This is why it's extremely important that rhetorical awareness-- rather than just form or content-- is a center piece of writing instruction. Every writing event will not call for the same performance or product, even ones that seem extremely similar. Those who cannot locate the elements that influence the writing event and ask the right questions of themselves will be unable to perform and produce effective writing, and they may miss out on real opportunities as a result.

No comments: