stop telling me you’re a great writer

It’s Flashback Friday! Here’s an old post from March 2009 that we’re making new again, rather than leaving it to wilt in the archives.

It’s not a great idea — nor is it necessary — to brag about your writing skills in your cover letter or on your resume, via subjective assessments of yourself like the following that I’ve seen recently:

“Outstanding writing skills”

“Highly conceptual and great at expressing ideas in a fresh, new way”

“Able to present strategic concepts in clear, persuasive, technically sound writing”

Here’s why. If you have great writing skills, I’m going to see them in the cover letter. You don’t have to tell me they’re there. If I care about candidates’ writing skills (and oh, how I do), I’m going to be looking for them in your cover letter and other communications anyway.

But all too often, candidates give me their own assessment of their writing skills. And when it doesn’t match up with the not-so-great cover letter they’ve written — which is often the case — now I’m doubting the other subjective statements they have on their resume too. If they’re wrong about their writing skills, why wouldn’t I think they might be wrong about other skills they’re claiming for themselves?

Frankly, I don’t like any subjective statements on a resume. As I’ve written before, resumes should present factual information about what you’ve done, not subjective self-assessments. That’s because I don’t yet know enough about you to have any idea if yours is reliable or not.

Telling me that you’re a fantastic writer when I can see that you’re not pretty much answers that question for me, and not in a good way.

Now, you might think, “But since I know that I am a great writer, it’s okay for me to do this.” And maybe you really are (although a lot of people think they are when they’re not). But you still shouldn’t do it. If you’re a great writer and you want me to know that, write a great cover letter. That’s how I’ll know.

{ 84 comments… read them below }

  1. fposte

    “Highly conceptual and great at expressing ideas in a fresh, new way” is also clunky as hell.

    1. CoffeeLover

      To be read as: “Highly conceptual and great at expressing ideas in a clunky as hell way” ;)

        1. Chinook

          But what if I am clunky (like Sgt. Detritus)? Wouldn’t clunky writing then be the perfect way to express myself?

          And yes, commenting on this would be like feeding a troll (hee, hee, hee).

              1. periwinkle

                Amazon says the new book (“Raising Steam”, with Moist von Lipwig taking on another challenge) won’t be released until March in the U.S., several months after the U.K. release.

                *whimper*

                I wonder what the shipping charge is from Amazon UK…

  2. Lily in NYC

    I recently received a resume where the person wrote she was charismatic in her objective (on the resume, not in the cover letter). It really backfired – her resume wasn’t bad but my boss was put off by it.

    1. Jamie

      Oh that’s awful – I’d be very put off by that as well.

      And that cover letter would have the song “Charisma” running through my head for days.

      And it’s there now…thanks…:)

    2. Chinook

      Honestly, calling yourself charismatic would being images of charismatic christians to my head and I would drop your resume in File 13 immediately. If you are that personable, I should be able to pick it up the moment you walk into the room for the interview.

  3. CoffeeLover

    I had a university Career Councillor tell me to make similar statements, but to make them specific. So instead of saying you’re “great at communicating”, you say specific things about how you’re great at communicating, i.e. “great at technical writing”. I don’t know how that makes it better.

    “Published technical, aerospace articles in the Journal of Science.” Now that’s impressive :)

    1. Ruffingit

      Yeah, it’s not about telling, it’s about showing. You can say you’re great at technical writing all day long, but being able to show it by stating that you published in tech journals or have written the user guide for a widely used piece of software is going to take you much farther in the esteem of those with hiring power.

      1. Jessa

        Exactly. Don’t tell me things, show me examples. You think you’re a great writer, give me links to your writing if it’s online. Show me things you’ve published, etc. Don’t tell me you can write. Anyone can say they can write.

    2. danr

      Of course you really want to have published those articles. I know of a job applicant who had an impressive list of publications in his resume. Unfortunately he was applying for a job at a company with full access to an indexing database for those journals. (abstracting and full text came much later). The editor looked them up, and every one was written by someone else. She also thought she should have recognized the name of someone so ‘famous’.

      1. Show don't tell

        I assume it’s different in academia versus advocacy, but almost everything in politics/nonprofits is ghost written. You’re not talking about a case like that though, right?

        1. Jessa

          I think in that case it would have been made clear in the CV. From the text of danr’s post, it looks to me like if they were ghost writing, they didn’t say so. Which makes them look like liars. And they probably were not ghost writing anyway, because most know enough to say that.

  4. Mimi

    I recently reviewed a resume that was 6 pages long – and that’s due to the 4 pages of subjective statements: “Superior communication skills….Effective communicator….Excels in both written and verbal communication…..” Aack!!

  5. Curious...

    If you’ve previously been employed as a fact checker/editor, and the job is for an editing or writing position, does this rule still apply? I like to put a twist on it, ie something like “My editing abilities are top-notch, even if I must credit them to a position right after college fact checking ____”. This does two things for me, highlights my editing skills and sort of addresses my short stay at this (awful) job that I leave on my resume because I am only a few years out of college and it does help prove my editing skills.

    Obviously it negates itself if there are errors in the cover letter, but would people advise against this subjective statement?

    1. Eric

      Hmmm…one wording that conveys the same message but is a little more objective is “I honed my editing skills as a fact checker at ___, right after college”.

      1. KW

        +1 The original statement reads as apologetic/passive aggressive. Show us your top notch writing skills by writing a great letter.

    2. KarenT

      I don’t think it hurts you, but it doesn’t help much either. I’ve hired a lot of editors over the years, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an editor’s resume (or proofreader/fact checker etc.) that didn’t talk about their great writing and editing skills.

      When I hire an editor, their editing skills aren’t my biggest focus because all successful applicants will have strong editorial skills (assessed by their application materials, editing test that we send out, and job history). By the time you make it to the later interview stages, we’ve already decided you’re a good editor. We’re looking at all the other requirements for the decision.

    3. fposte

      I would still advise against it, and you’ve got an even better opportunity to talk about your skills right there. You can talk about the position, the skills its given you, how you’ve used them, and any kind of quantification you can make of the impact (“Ever since then, I’m the go-to editor in every job I’ve had, and I’ve expanded my job here at Miserabilia to include editing the quarterly reports”), but saying that you’re topnotch doesn’t tell me anything good and makes me a little wary.

    4. Chinook

      My one caveat about mentioning any fact checking skills in a cover letter is that you better quadruple check that letter for any typos or other types of errors. Murphy’s Law says that your fact checking skills will probably be proven wrong in the following sentence.

    5. Ruffingit

      I always say “show, don’t tell.” Having previously worked in the writing industry myself, I understand where you’re coming from, but the thing to do is show your skills through accomplishments. What have you done that proves you have these superior skills? Highlight those things. So, instead of “My editing abilities are top notch,” you can say for example “I was editor in chief of a daily newspaper, working my way up from press release proofreader.” That shows you were promoted from the low man on the totem pole to the top position. That shows your skill level rather than just telling about it.

      1. TychaBrahe

        What if your particular skills don’t show well in a resume?

        I’m a technical writer. My skill is distilling complex technical information into a format the average new adopter of that technology can use. If I’m not teaching someone how to use a piece of equipment or software, and if the user isn’t new to computers, that’s not going to come across at all. And a resume certainly won’t showcase my skills in instructional Web design and document formatting.

        When I was job hunting I did have a Web page with samples of my work and put together a portfolio I could have given to an interviewer. But at some point I have to say I don’t just know how to use MS Word and Publisher, I know what to put in them to get my point across.

        1. JMegan

          >>My skill is distilling complex technical information into a format the average new adopter of that technology can use.

          That is a great sentence for a cover letter!

  6. srmanager

    I writing test every. single. hire. for communications positions.

    I have supervised former reporters who were “famous” and had more than 20 years experience as a foreign correspondent, but who obviously got there by leaning heavily on their editor.

    1. Leslie Yep

      YES. This is a total non-negotiable in my mind for ALL positions. So much better to see rather than ask.

      1. Jamie

        I wish this was required for all positions. The fallout when it isn’t seems to be the writing portion of jobs farmed out to those who can do it and it’s an easy pass for those who can’t.

        And I’m not talking about prose or captivating style, just professional business writing which everyone should be able to learn.

    2. Hooptie

      Just curious – what do you use for writing tests for standard business communication? Are there good sources online?

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        I just come up with a writing prompt for something similar to the type of writing they’d have to do on the job. For instance, I’ll ask them to write a 2-page fundraising mailing, or an action alert, or whatever is relevant to what they’d be doing.

        1. Elizabeth West

          I had to do an editing test for my job, which involves editing software assessment reports. It was doubly hard because I don’t have industry knowledge, so I did my very best and formatted it as though it were part of a real report.

          I got the job and my boss said mine was the best one. :D But BOY did I sweat over that!

  7. Bryce

    It’s like telling people how honest, tough, smart, Christian, etc. you are: if you have to tell people, you aren’t.

    1. Anony1234

      In another way too, I don’t trust people who say they are easy to get along with – yeah, they probably are as long as they get their way!

      1. Editor

        I worry about doing this kind of thing in cover letters, and it makes writing them very difficult for me. I discovered that I write better cover letters for jobs I’m not particularly interested in (I found this out courtesy of unemployment compensation rules, not because I routinely apply for jobs I don’t want).

        The other day I was reading Dan Ariely’s blog, and he was talking about how people aren’t objective about themselves. For instance, he said, someone who’s been going to the same trusted doctor for a decade might take that doctor’s recommendation to have a costly procedure done. Yet, if that person was asked what they would advise a friend to do in that situation, the patient almost always suggested a second opinion. So, he said, check to see what you’d tell a friend in that situation in order to make a more rational decision for yourself.

        I am trying to figure out if I can use this approach when formulating cover letters for jobs I really want to interview for. Maybe it will help my perspective by thinking what I’d suggest a co-worker say if they had similar skills.

    2. Rhoda

      I thought it was ridiculous to put things like ‘honest and trustworthy’ when applying for a job. But then a careers advisor told me to. Perhaps I should go back to trusting my instincts.

      1. ChristineSW

        I’d say go with your instincts. I’ve gotten advice from career counselors and workshops about what to write in cover letters that went against my gut. Yet I followed the advice anyway figuring they knew what they were talking about.

  8. Peter

    In light of resumes being scanned by computers these days, could you suggest any alternatives that might work? And what about the hiring managers that just skim through resumes and don’t bother to read the cover letter unless the resume looks good? How do you convey your “outstanding writing skills” to them?

    1. Another English Major

      Even if you include in your cover letter that you have outstanding writing skills, the hiring manager wouldn’t be able to tell right away in those scenarios either.

      Probably the best bet is to make sure the actual writing in your resume is excellent (clear & concise), and to also include any accomplishment that are based on your ability to write well. For example, if you wrote a training document that is now the SOP for your department, or your press releases led to gaining new accounts.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      If it’s a position that requires great writing, any half decent hiring manager is going to look at the writing in the cover letter (and the resume too, for that matter, but especially the cover letter).

      1. Ruffingit

        I have applied for writing positions in the past and I always ensure they are as clean as possible because, if I’m going to be touting my writing skills, the very first place I can prove their existence is in the cover letter. I’m always amazed that people don’t double and triple check their cover letters before sending them out for this very reason.

        1. Elizabeth West

          This. And TOTALLY print them out and look at the hard copy. Staring at a screen will not help you spot errors, especially ones that spellcheck doesn’t catch (I always type form for from,

  9. Another English Major

    I love these flashback posts!

    This is really great advice and helped me trim the fat from my cover letters and resume. I’m a little confused on one thing though. In this example of a great cover letter https://www.askamanager.org/2011/09/great-cover-letter.html
    the writer includes what I think are subjective assessments such as “I’m extremely motivated, organized and disciplined – you have to be to work from home.” I’m having trouble with where the line is. Is it because the rest of the cover letter is so great? Or is it because she included the wfh as an example?

  10. Allison

    What if you said that you were known for your writing skills in previous jobs, or were the go-to person on certain writing tasks? Would that fall under the “show, don’t tell” category, or is it still too subjective?

    1. fposte

      I think that’s a lot better–it talks about what your skills have earned you and it involves the judgment of others, who don’t love you like you do :-).

    2. Del

      In that case, I would suggest highlighting what people were going to you for – were you the one writing the grant proposals? Press releases? Informational pamphlets?

  11. Felicia

    I’ve never actually said that in a cover letter because it feels like bad writing to write that. “Highly conceptual and great at expressing ideas in a fresh, new way” isn’t really expressed in a fresh new way. :) One thing I never know how to answer though is when an interviewer asks me how I would describe my writing skills. So many of them ask that. My writing skills are….awesome? I don’t really think awesome is the right word, though I have a lot of published writing and have gotten good feedback so I try to focus on that but I never know what to say.

    1. Pussyfooter

      Maybe they want a break down of what’s strongest, and weakest? Your particular style or working approach?

    2. fposte

      I’m intrigued to hear this gets asked. I don’t actually know what they’re looking for either, but I’d be more comfortable answering with information that gives an idea about what it achieves (“professional, persuasive, clear”) rather than just superlative adjectives about its greatness. What field is this, though? There are some places it would probably be more appropriate to talk about your debt to Hunter S. Thompson than your professional and persuasive writing.

      1. Felicia

        I actually just got asked this today, which is why I wondered what exactly they were looking for. I also encountered it in other interviews, not all of them, but often enough that I have no idea what to say. It is in communications/public relations, so talking about professional and persuasive writing makes sense. Today I focused on the feedback I’ve gotten on my writing, but I felt like that had to be wrong. I talked about the experience I had with professional writing and said I’ve been told I have a clear and precise style and am able to convey complex information in short easy to understand pieces of writing (that was actually written in a reference letter I have, so I’m confident that reference would say something like that) I’d rather they look at writing samples or make me do a writing test rather than ask that. I just really hate those interview questions where I have no idea what they want from me, and they probably do get a lot of people who say they’re great writers because of the way they ask the question.

    3. Ask a Manager Post author

      It’s kind of an odd question to ask, since people’s self-assessments on this can be so off and it’s so easy to just look at their writing and assess it from there. But if asked, I might talk about voice rather than *skills*, if that makes sense.

    4. Rana

      I’d be interested in what ways they are “awesome” – are you able to get to the point quickly in a pithy way? Are you able to shift “voice” and style to meet the demands of the task? Do you have a particularly distinctive style of your own that other people find compelling? Are you good at taking other people’s complex ideas and boiling them down to their essential points? Are you rigorous with regards to grammar and proofreading? And so on.

      For example, when I talk about my writing and editing skills to clients, I make a big point about how I am able to enhance clarity while preserving a writer’s voice; something edited by me should still sound like “you” – just a better version of “you” – is how I sometimes put it. I also talk about how my familiarity with the editing process means that I’m more efficient it at it than someone who is learning it from scratch, which means hiring me saves the client time and effort that could be spent elsewhere. I usually discuss how my own experiences as an academic writer have prepared me to understand others’ scholarly writing, and given me a solid grasp of what an academic audience expects, versus a popular audience. (I can also run that the other way; my experience as a blogger makes it possible for me to translate academic arcana into a form that’s accessible to non-specialists.)

      That sort of thing is more informative than simply saying “I’m a damn good editor,” right?

      1. Jessa

        If I needed an editor, I’d hire you. So I’d say yes, it’s way more informative than saying you’re a “damn good editor.”

  12. Show don't tell

    I write for a living and hate writing cover letters for this reason. I *love* writing and editing other people’s, though, because you can explain why you’re good at your job a lot more easily when 90% of your job isn’t writing.

    Usually I talk about things my writing has done, like convinced people to spend money to attend an event and raised an organization’s profile, or times when I’ve seized on the right timing to release something for more impact. It’s hard, though.

    The flip side is that as long as the cover letter is really well written, the specific attributes from the job description that I choose to emphasize probably matter less.

    1. Anonicorn

      I *love* writing and editing other people’s, though,

      Same here. I’m much better editor / re-writer of other people’s stuff.

      1. Rana

        Heck, I’m a better editor of my own stuff. Writing can be like pulling teeth sometimes, but editing? Oh, now that part’s fun!

  13. SB

    I have a job (and have had jobs in the past) that rely heavily on my writing ability. Whenever I apply for a job that requires strong writing ability, esp in certain forms like speeches or press releases, I usually include a writing sample of something I’ve done in the past for work. Most application systems allow you to upload “supporting documents” and if they’re going to hire me with writing talent in mind, I would like to be sure they know whether or not I can do the kind of writing they have in mind. Like most people, I hate writing cover letters because there is so much pressure for a couple paragraphs to convey everything necessary that I never feel they’re up to snuff. Perhaps it’s due to my niche in the communication world, but I’ve gotten a lot of thanks in interviews on my forethought for providing a writing sample.

  14. Hello Vino

    This x 100! When a candidate makes a statement about how great they are at XYZ, most of the time, they’re not very good at XYZ at all. Show, not tell, please!

    I recently reviewed an application for a graphic design position that included the following statements:

    “well-rounded and versatile designer with a culturally diverse identity and broad range of skills”
    “positive attitude towards new experiences”
    “ambitious drive for creativity”

    Everything in this candidate’s portfolio looked pretty much the same, regardless of the brand/client, and was limited to just a couple types of print projects. Not sure what “culturally diverse identity” means…

  15. Rob Bird

    AAM: I don’t like subjective statements, so I tell people if they have an accomplishment they can put in, to do that.

    In this case, instead of saying they are a great writer could they instead say “Awarded the Chocolate Teapot Dome for my great writing by the National Association of Great Writers”? It is an accomplishment that not every applicant can say.

    Thoughts?

    1. Rob Bird

      And as you can see, I am not a great writer….I used instead twice in the same sentence and it doesn’t make sense now that I look at it…..*sigh*

  16. Stephen

    Is it worthwhile to include a publications section on your resume for a job that has writing as a major qualification? I have a few newsletters and articles that have been published on my employers’ websites and I feel that pointing to them would better demonstrate my skills in writing those kind of pieces than my cover letter could. If you do include publications, is it really tacky to provide a web link?

  17. Cimorene

    I’ve applied for jobs at companies where contacts have instructed me specifically to quote the language of the job posting in my cover letter and/or my resume. So if the job posting says that they want people with “Excellent oral and written communications skills,” I’m supposed to somehow wrangle that phrase into the cover letter or resume. This makes it difficult to show rather than tell.

    This is especially frustrating for me because my primary responsibility at my current job is writing (and teaching composition). It’s hard to discuss the quality of one’s writing without slipping into subjective statements–it seems like describe my excellent paper on the functions of ‘Shakespeare’ in 19th Century American cowboy novels will convince someone that I’m hireable outside academia (I’m currently a PhD student).

    1. AB

      [ Disclaimer: I almost never have to write a cover letter because every single recruiter / hiring manager says I have an impressive resume, and it gets noticed on its own when I apply to jobs in my field, so it’s not as if I’m a great example of person who knows how to write good cover letters.]

      I disagree that you need to rely on subjective statements to discuss the quality of your writing. Sure, describing
      how great your paper on the ‘functions of Shakespeare in 19th Century American cowboy novels’ is not going to help much if you are looking for a job outside academia, but saying you have excellent writing skills won’t be very effective either, because all other candidates will be saying the same thing.

      What you need to do is to find a way to proof that you do have the desired skills. If you feel like you *must* use the same keywords from the job posting (I never do) what you could do is say something like this in your cover letter (obviously using your superior writing skills to improve the wording ;-).

      “The fact that this posting asks for ‘excellent oral and written communications skills’ was one of the main reasons I was excited about applying. My primary responsibility at my current job is writing and teaching composition, which gave me many opportunities to practice and improve my written and oral communication skills over the past X years. In my current position, I’ve received multiple accolades for my writing, such as [example], and repeated invitations to speak at [events]…”

      (Find some evidence that you have superior writing and speaking skills, and write about it. In my case, I’d “show, not tell” by describing how the president of a company I used to work for in NYC refused to send out any communication or marketing material to customers without my reviewing it first, if someone other than myself had written it. I’d also mention I was the only non-native English speaker in the office, which tells much more about my writing abilities than just saying “I have great communication skills”.)

  18. Julia

    Frankly, so many job listings for writers are really badly written that you wonder what their criteria for good writing actually are.

  19. Ruby

    The parallel daring/job application story continues. Substitute the word “kiss/kisser/kissing” for write/writer/writing. :)

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