Tag Archives: writing

The agony and triumph of writing a cover letter

All right, I’d better fact-check my name. “T-a-y-l-o-r.” Better check it one more time. Golden.

Now, time to capture the essence of personality, professional experience and skills in one page. I’m a writing major — I can do it!

Wait, should I start with one of those business-y, “Please accept my application,” intros or something snarkier?

Maybe, I’ll tell the employer a comical story of transformation. Like the time I was relegated to the outfield in first-grade T-ball. Look how far I’ve come — from the ultimate athletic rejection (at age 7, anyway) to covering sports for a living! Nah, that tale reveals little beyond my superior ability to weave a dandelion crown.

Line one complete. Oh, no, I started with “I.” Will the employer think I’m a narcissistic? A sociopath? A self-righteous ninny? Well, I guess I am the one applying for the job, right?

Why can’t I just write, “Hey, future employer. I can write about a lot of things, including (but not limited to) heroin abuse, non-profit organizations, rare dinosaurs from Gondwana and sports”?

I’ve resorted to Googling one of those trite cover letter “action keyword” lists. You know, that neat, alphabetized catalog that contains, “Look at me! I am a big kid!” words like “enforced,” “inspired” and “maximized.”

Their sickeningly sweet tone is too much for me. I time-travel back to the cover letter intro in high school, where my teacher circled the opening word of each sentence in thick, red pen. Is four I’s the limit — or is it five? I wonder to myself, now on my third mug of black tea.

Two sentences in. “You are a cover-letter warrior!” I exclaim. Pep talks are a staple of such a task.

After few more cups of tea and a snack break (one of those, “I wrote a solid sentence, therefore I’ve earned granola bar, 15 minutes of Facebook-creeping and an all-expense-paid trip to the Caribbean”), I finally have three paragraphs.

“Ah, this paragraph is much longer than the others!” Will that make me look inconsistent and flaky? Or will it show I’m the kind of optimistic risk-taker/free-thinkier they want in the office?

Time to sign my name. Pink Sharpie is probably a little too avant-garde. I’d better go find a black pen.

If my handwriting is too neat, they’ll probably think I’m some uptight jerk, but if it’s too messy, they’ll think I’m careless and rash.

Taylor O. Soule. Better check my name one more time.

Finally, that looming command, the one that tried to log me out 17 times while I contemplated the “I” pronoun maximum: “submit.”

* * *

Though I’ll continue to agonize over that letter for the coming days, weeks and probably, months, there’s something effortlessly raw and rewarding about capturing the self as it exists in one moment.

The agony, deliberation and psychological distress of writing a cover letter are hardly evident on the page, I imagine, cloaked in assertive “I’s” and those love/hate-worthy “action keywords.” But somewhere amid the protocol, the advice of past teachers and the professional discourse, I’d like to think a glimmer of me — the sports writer whose first athletic endeavor involved dandelion jewelry — emerges.

Re-learning to appreciate the nuances of language, English and beyond

When I edit, I communicate my irritation verbally, often in a rapid-fire rant: “Ugh, what, no, a semicolon is not used to link an independent clause and dependent clause! Why? Ugh, people!” I’m compelled to voice it for two reasons — one: the improper use of semicolons angers me, and two, I admit I feel the need to publicly assert my control over language.

In a world defined by uncertainty, I crave control, and for a long time, writing provided it. I could manipulate my language; therefore, I owned it. After one week into my final semester at Drake University, though, I’ve realized control over language is an illusion.

I’ve re-adopted the art of diagramming sentences. Yeah, remember that convoluted verb/noun web you hated in fifth grade? By reacquainting myself with terminology like “predicate” and “compound-complex,” I’ve realized I largely take linguistic structure and established conventions for granted.

I’ve been here forming sentences on the page but paying no attention to the underlying framework of my communication. The beauty of language, I naively thought, dwelled in word choice, content and concept.

Now back in the realm of diagrams and word webs, though, I’m consciously evaluating and appreciating the framework of what I do every day: communicate. Even when I include a “Look at me!” word, it lacks impact and meaning without structure. Humbly and quietly, structure often vanishes, blinded by the glow of a flashy word or literary device.

My perceived ‘control’ over language recently faced another wake-up call — the Arabic alphabet. What began with, “Why not learn Arabic? It could be kind of fun, right?” challenged my attitude toward the English language. Many Arabic sounds blend in my untrained ear, their variance unintelligible.

The subtle variations in Arabic revealed yet another thing I take for granted: the nuanced nature of language. Yeah, yeah, I know “said” and “claimed,” both denote the act of speaking but have dramatically different connotations. Yet, I rarely engage those nuances and instead focus on the pursuit of some enlightening concept or idea.

Each sound, noun, verb and punctuation mark determines and guides the content of writing in a way I too often take for granted, assuming I am somehow above such details.

Those details have humbly and quietly tolerated my ‘too-cool-for-you’ attitude for years. I hope it isn’t too late to repair the bond and maybe, improve my writing en route.

Facing the illusion of a ‘unique’ writing voice

“Mine.” The word pervaded my childhood home, courtesy of an ever-important exchange: “Mom! (Insert name of sister) stole my (insert name of plaything I suddenly deemed precious in the unfathomable event of abduction)!”

Growing up in the forever-unfair realm of sisterly sharing, I developed a keen awareness of ownership at an early age. And maybe, a little stubbornness accompanied it. Maybe.

Though I long ago bid farewell to the days of sharing Birthday Barbie — a then-unthinkable horror — I find myself struggling to relinquish ownership of my writing voice. In particular, I still have a difficult time admitting my ‘voice’ is merely a compilation of experiences, events, interactions and ultimately, other voices.

As a life writer, I’ve long felt the need and right to defend my ‘voice.’ For a long time, that meant resisting edits, revisions and suggestions. “But I’m more unique than you!” I longed to proclaim, but settled instead for a subtle eye-roll at far too many valuable ideas from insightful writers.

After a friendship abruptly ended earlier this year, though, I detected an immediate change in my ‘voice.’ A sharp, biting cynicism emerged, sometimes overpowering the ‘Taylor-trademark’ tone that preceded it. It frightened me.

In that sudden shift, I finally faced a fact I had known all along: My ‘voice’ — much like Birthday Barbie — was never only mine.

Though I’m sometimes still tempted to proclaim, “but I’m unique,” I’ve developed gratitude and appreciation for the voices that have impacted, shaped and molded my writing.

Finding a forever home in the newsroom

When I left my college newspaper in May after three crazy and challenging years, I admit I entertained the idea of never returning to a newsroom.

While the combination of running a twice-weekly publication, printing a 40-page special edition and completing my senior journalism capstone (all in one semester) contributed to that idea, I worried I’d never find another newsroom in which I felt equally inspired. Where community defined the experience.

After my first week as a sports news assistant at The Des Moines Register, I’ve realized the power of the newsroom isn’t in a witty headline, a moving story or even the name at the top of each page.

For me, the newsroom is a home and a haven, a place where I feel comfortable and challenged, productive and peaceful, all at once.

My tea mug expresses how I feel about the newsroom. Also, note the newsprint detailing.

My tea mug expresses how I feel about the newsroom. Also, note the newsprint detailing.

Maybe it’s that extra cup of black tea I inevitably pour when I copy edit. Maybe it’s the thrill of finding the dreaded Oxford comma and drawing a thick, red line through it. Maybe it’s the fact that I dedicate my time to content I hope enables readers to make decisions about their lives.

In typical Taylor fashion, I’m not certain — about a lot of things. Where my career will lead, where I’ll live after graduation.

But I know I’ll always have a home in the newsroom. And the best kind of home, at that: one with an endless supply of red pens, AP Stylebooks and people who believe in me.

Dictionary research reveals problematic nature of labels

At the beginning of May, I named summer 2014 a season of risk-taking. I would try new things and reinvent myself!

Two months into an ever-erratic Iowa summer, I’ve realized the season has transformed into something else. Thanks to my senior journalism capstone, Think Mag, I developed a procrastination-worthy (but generally welcome) compulsion to analyze the origin of words.

Amid a word’s winding journey through cultures, languages and time, it often reveals a valuable nugget of insight — something even the modern reader can derive from an ancient definition.

While wandering the Internet recently, I searched “risk,” the word that had (supposedly) guided me. According to my beloved Oxford English Dictionary (I’m dreading the day my online subscription ends, due to my Drake graduation), “risk” means “the possibility of loss, injury or other adverse circumstance.”

The negativity in the word’s historical journey surprised me. I mean, I understand the potentially grave outcome of something like cliff diving — all I wanted was to find my inner rebel.

But that’s the power of word etymology: It forces me to rethink my frame of mind and the way I process language and its significance. Etymology reveals the alarming extent to which I simplify words.

Without exploring a word’s origin and ever-evolving definition, it loses complexity and beauty — cue the quick, neat label for my summer. No longer did I have to ponder the meaning of “risk” and “risk-taking” in my life. That word eliminated the productive potential of innate ambiguity.

Though I’ve since abandoned the “risk-taking” theme, it manifested in an unexpected way. I’m no longer searching for a theme or any means of defining my summer, and for a conclusion enthusiast and champion organizer, that’s pretty risky.

The discourse shapes the definition of ‘truth’

News-Internet and English writing: The two sound compatible, as if they might grab a beer and split a plate of cheese fries at the local pub on a Friday night. In reality, though, I imagine they’d confront one another in that, “Greeeeeat. You’re here,” way. The bartender might even have to break up a potential literary brawl.

Though my majors appear compatible, I find them clashing more as I enter the final stage of my undergraduate career. A combination that initially felt natural has created an incessant sense of internal ethical conflict — but hey, that’s what college is designed to do, right?

While they differ on the Oxford comma (my news-Internet degree being the wiser of the two in that regard), a much larger issue (I know, it’s hard to believe there’s something more divisive than the Oxford comma debate) separates the two: truth. In particular, the expected degree of truth and the writer’s responsibility and accountability in providing it.

As a journalism student, reporter and copy editor, I dedicate my time and energy to ensuring the highest degree of truth and accuracy. That means fact-checking everything, calling sources to confirm quotes — and then double-checking it all over again.

As an English student with an emphasis in life writing, however, I examine how the inconsistency of memory warps truth, preventing the fair, objective writing for which I strive every day in my journalistic work. By asking questions like, “Does it matter if I wrote that I wore a blue dress when it was, in fact, a red dress?” I engage both the literary and journalistic tenets of truth and accuracy in a new, complicated way.

For me, “truth” is no longer as simple as confirming every name, number and quote in an article. “Truth” is more elusive. It transforms with the discourse — and I like it that way.

As much as I’d love to join English writing and news-Internet for a beer and an order of cheese fries on Friday night, I admit I savor their incompatibility. Because somewhere amid the moments of raw befuddlement and internal conflict, I move a little closer to understanding how “truth” manifests in my life, academically, professionally and ethically.

Reflection experience optimum in the summer

With June complete, I feel an inevitable wave of reflection. Fear not, though, I won’t launch into an extended, sugary monologue about how much I love “SUMMERRRRR <3” (to quote the title of a teenage Facebook album that, thankfully, has since entered the digital graveyard).

Rather, summer provides a time to reflect on what I’ve learned. Without the chaos of exams, essays, applications (and the incessant fear that another Drake squirrel will leap at me from his fortress inside a campus trashcan), reflection is more organic and less fragmented this time of year.

Between working in the communications department at the Science Center of Iowa and freelancing for The Des Moines Register, I’ve embraced versatility and variety this summer. Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about journalism and perhaps more importantly, about myself. And since I’m not yet ready to break my streak of list-style op-eds, here are three things I’ve learned this summer.

Don’t limit yourself. While I admit I first thought of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream when I wrote that tagline, I’m talking about my journalistic focus. When I began my Drake University career, I had my mind and heart set solely on a bigwig career at a fancy, metropolitan daily newspaper.

I didn’t need to learn any of that digital business. I was already en route to a print-exclusive career defined by fame and fortune!

The Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication has pushed me outside the cozy, familiar realm of ink-stained palms and red pens, though, and I’ve realized the scope of the big, beautiful media world in which I thrive.

This summer, for instance, I’m producing and editing video, running a Pinterest account, writing and managing a website — all in the PR field. A world I never imagined I’d experience.

Don’t forget what motivated you at the beginning. And while I’ve enjoyed dabbling in a new field and delving into the digital world, I haven’t forgotten what drew me to journalism in the first place: sports writing for print.

In my work freelancing at The Des Moines Register, I get the chance to re-experience what I loved about playing prep sports in Iowa: the hometown pride and the state’s rich, highly competitive athletic culture. And I admit I’ll never tire of seeing my name in print.

Write every day. I heard it again and again growing up, but I only recently realized the merit of that advice. Whether I’m crafting a quirky caption for a pin or detailing another traumatizing squirrel incident, writing daily helps me process the minutiae of life and develop my voice.

Besides, I may never again have the opportunity to write about squirrels, ice cream and “minutiae” in a connected manner.

Writing daily becomes a welcome habit rather than a chore

Every year in every English class, my teachers repeated the same principle of writing: “The best way to become a better writer is to write.”

“Well, duh,” I thought to my already refined, all-knowing teenage self. Yet I wrote exclusively for the purpose of checking a class assignment off my to-do list or writing another paragraph in the ever-painful cover-letter battle.

As a longtime writer and future English major, I didn’t really need the extra practice, and I would work on my craft plenty in college, right? Ha.

This summer, though, I’ve set a goal to write every day, whether that means composing a series of related and/or funny tweets, updating my website bio or blogging. And inevitably, I’ve realized my teachers were right all along (and I’m extremely stubborn).

Though it took me a while to admit, I’m now able to write more efficiently, thanks to that teacher-ly advice. Before, I would expend up to an hour (or even two) crafting the perfect sentence. Yeah, I’m talking about a single sentence.

But after challenging myself to write every day, I’ve discovered I enjoy the act of spilling my thoughts onto the page (with a purpose, of course). For a lifelong perfectionist, that’s a big step.

Now that I don’t immediately have to find the ideal but ever-elusive synonym for “madness” (throwing it back to the year I studied revenge tragedies of the English Renaissance), I’m free to let the content of my writing reveal itself in an organic manner. Even if that organic writing inevitably leads to a few more, “What in the name of corn on the cob?” moments later in the revision/editing process.

Writing daily became a welcome habit more quickly than I expected — something that’s ingrained in my daily routine, much like tossing a random assortment of fruit into my beloved blender and calling it lunch.

I’ve skipped writing some days this summer, I admit, but every time, I feel a nagging emptiness, as though something is missing. My thoughts are more disorganized and unmoored.

Besides, when I abandon my writing challenge for a day or two, I miss valuable opportunities to say, “What in the name of corn on the cob?”

Blogging: a place for experimentation and my wannabe-rebel self

When I informed my sister I planned to update my blog tonight, she responded with the expected question: “What are you writing about?” And in the rhythm of family banter, I responded with the usual, “I don’t know yet.”

That brief exchange provided the focus of this post (I swear I approach each entry with a topic in mind, despite my writing’s often-meandering nature): why I blog. Yep, today I’m blogging about blogging — maybe I can coin the term “meta-blogging.” All right, never mind.

But back to the “why” of blogging. In my methodical world of color-coded, well, everything, blogging provides an outlet for my spontaneous side (it exists, I promise). Without the confinement of a detailed prompt, a target word count, a page limit or an impending deadline (unless my bedtime counts), blogging is a space to ramble with a point and challenge/develop my writer voice — to free my wannabe-rebel alter-ego through intentional sentence fragments, unconventional capitalization and (gulp) the occasional expletive.

Blogging is more about the process than the product for me. I typically write about what I’m baffled by, what I’ve barely begun to ponder. The blog I created for a class assignment has since evolved into a realm for everything from fangirling over ‘90s sitcoms to exploring the value of reflection. A place to experiment.

And perhaps most importantly, blogging is a place to begin sentences with the forbidden “and” or “but” — like a total badass.

The value of job-hopping

Real people work one job from 9-5. They drive to the office every day, probably in a reliable car with a “Drake alumni” decal (in my world, anyway).

At the beginning of the year, I had it all figured out. In May, I would begin a full-time job with standard hours and a steady paycheck. I would drive to work. That’s what real people do, and damn it, I’m nearing real-people-dom, with my graduation approaching in December.

Forever on the brink of fledgling adulthood, I wanted to meet my preconceived definition. That would prove I’m ready for the ‘real world,’ right? But the year turned out dramatically different — and I’m content.

Rather than drive to work, I ride the bus. Rather than work one job from 9-5, I work two part-time jobs and three on-and-off freelance writing and videography gigs.

Though I initially dreaded rambling off each job when asked the inevitable question, “What are you doing this summer?” I’ve come to embrace and even appreciate the array. Job-hopping proved to be exactly what I needed.

I devoted nearly all my time and energy last semester to two beloved publications, Think Mag and The Times-Delphic. Though I gained a wealth of practical experience and fondly remember my time with both, I often felt trapped in the grueling cycle of each publication.

Job-hopping, however, has allowed me to try a wide variety of skills and projects. Yet again, my pesky (but ultimately dear) friend chaos has returned and proved a beautiful part of my life.

In a ‘typical’ workday at the Science Center of Iowa, I sometimes go from producing video to editing a blog post to writing a press release to pinning periodic table puns (comedic gold, I swear). And that’s only job No. 1. After that, I might update an Excel spreadsheet at job No. 2 before heading to a local softball diamond to cover a high school game for The Des Moines Register.

Along the job-hopping way, I’ve created my own definition of real-people-dom. Rather than a realm defined by a practical car, regular paycheck and “Bulldog Pride” auto decal, real-people-dom, I’ve realized, can be whatever I make it — screeching Dart bus brakes, periodic-table jokes and homeruns included.

I hope to eventually trade my job-hopping habit for something a little closer to the aforementioned definition, but whatever I do, I know I don’t need to meet a predetermined definition of adulthood. I can create my own definition of it. Well, fledgling adulthood, anyway.