I turned out to be a huge Stephen King fan as an adult. Growing up, my sister loved his horror stories, but I don’t really like horror, so I never read any King. Until, that is, I read The Dark Tower. That sold me. Now Stephen King is a go-to for me, particularly when I’m going on a long drive and want an audiobook I can expect to enjoy.
A few years ago, I read his book On Writing. It guides many of my writing decisions to this day, including a post about being well-spoken in a letter. I just re-read On Writing and wanted to share some more detailed insight I think will help you write a better letter.
“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because maybe you’re maybe a little ashamed of your short ones.”
I see this ALL THE TIME in letters of application. I suspect it’s because the writers think that they need to use a big vocabulary to demonstrate they are intelligent applicants. I would argue the effect is exactly the opposite. Most of the time, I assume the writer hit the thesaurus to find a bigger word, not necessarily a better one. King’s advice is to use the first word that comes to mind, and I absolutely agree. Keep it simple. Your goal is to get your point across, and the best way to do that is with straightforward language.
Adverbs and Passive Verbs
“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. … If, however, one is working under a deadline-a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample- that fear may be intense. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason.”
As a general rule, use active words. Avoid adverbs.
“It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true.”
If you want to be a decent writer, you have to read a lot. The best case is if you can read lots of letters of intent. This is pretty difficult to do, but maybe not impossible. At least do an internet search for examples of letters of intent to get a sense of how they should flow.
“You can’t aim a book like a cruise missile, in other words.”
You never know who will be reading your application. Maybe they are someone like you. Maybe they love to see a bit of an arrogant attitude in an applicant. Maybe they are a pushover and give everyone five stars for their letter. You don’t know what your audience wants, so you can’t tailor your letter perfectly. Instead, make it YOUR LETTER. Make it good, but make it something that is authentic to you. Don’t just do what you’re told. Write what you feel.
“Your job in the second draft- one of them, anyway- is to make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions.”
Don’t be afraid to get a first draft just to get SOMETHING on paper, then do a serious slash and burn with subsequent revisions. You don’t need to keep anything from your first draft- although some good snippets should probably survive. I helped a student this year with their VIRMP application and their final version was _dramatically_ different from their first version. And, I believe, dramatically better. There were some ideas and specific sentences which survived from the first version, but it was almost unrecognizable. You SHOULD make serious changes to your second draft.
Be Kind to Yourself
“Screw-ups happen to the best of us.”
It’s OK if you realize after your first draft that you forgot to include something important. Or to realize that the whole tone is off somehow. It’s fine. Writing is never perfect. Even once you have revised it and had others review it, your letter may have flaws. Hopefully the spelling and grammar, at least, is correct. But if you realize your letter is flawed after submission, grant yourself a pardon. Everyone makes mistakes. Just make sure you learn from it for next time.
What’s the Point?
“What I want most of all is _resonance_, something that will linger for a little while in Constant Reader’s mind (and heart) after he or she has closed the book and put it up on the shelf. … Most of all, I’m looking for what I meant…”
What are you TRYING to communicate? That you’re the best applicant, sure. But how? By sharing stories of your qualities? What do you want the reader to walk away thinking? This is complicated, but it’s the path from a good letter to a great letter. I have read numerous good letters and my feedback is often, “This is good. It’s solid, clear, good language, etc. You could submit this as-is and I think you would be a strong candidate. If you want to make it better, you have to think about what the POINT of each of these sentences is, and what you want the reader to KNOW about you at the end.” If a student takes me up on the challenge of writing a great letter, the final is often substantially different from that first draft. And I think the major difference is asking yourself, “What’s the point of this sentence or paragraph?”
“In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High- 1966, this would’ve been- I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. … ‘Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft -10%’”
Cut, cut, and cut some more. Trim out all the excess fat. Get rid of the adverbs. Get rid of sentences which don’t have a point. Cut until the product is so clean, so tight, that everything has a place and is there for a reason. This will help you stick to the 1-page limit of many letters of intent.
Those are the lessons I noticed re-reading On Writing that I wanted to share with you. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to. There’s a lot of good advice in there, particularly for those writing fiction. But these are the gems which I think are most helpful for my own readers.