Friday, December 05, 2008

How to Sell Yourself in a Letter

This is something I have agonized a lot over in the past, so I was glad to
run across two pieces bearing on it in the last little while. They're both
inspired by looking through real letters that people sent, hoping to sell
themselves to the writer, so this is based on something.

Screenwriter Alex Epstein (Bon Cop, Bad Cop) wrote about emails he got
from people applying to be his intern:
"First, the most effective letters focused on how you can help me. I want
this to be a good fit for you, but my primary focus is on what qualifies
you to do the job well. What are your qualifications? What are your

Second, the best letters tended to be shorter. I know this is your shot at
the job, so you want to put it all in there. But a really well crafted,
well-thought out half page impresses more than a page with everything in
it. Anyone who's looking to hire you wants to know that you can
prioritize. What's the most important thing you have to say?

Third, the most effective letters were unapologetically positive. Never
diss your lack of experience or the quality of your work or talk about
your doubts. Almost any letter you write to a stranger is partially a
sales letter. Sell yourself to the person you're writing to. Why give me
reasons to doubt you?"

This second article is by some prominent screenwriters (behind Disney's
Aladdin among other things), about how to write a query letter, which is a
letter you send trying to entice people to read your script and turn it
into a movie.

They write about the many mistakes you can make when writing a query
letter, but I find it more efficient to start by looking at someone
who has best practices (that was the one piece of advice my brain managed
to retain from a personal talk by Jeff Bezos we got as intern)
He writes about the subtext that's present in even a short query letter,
and how often letters have the wrong subtext.

"The subtext we most hope to find -- beyond that great film idea in the
text, of course -- is:

'Here I am. I'm serious. I'm capable. I'm talented. I know the
business, and I'm ready to do this job.' "

Then they give a real example of such a letter (that manages to be "warm,
easygoing, straightforward, professional, funny, present the image of a
person that we'd like to meet and work with, all while staying on topic,
and be short, yet compelling"). Some excerpts, with their comments in
square brackets:

"I have very much enjoyed reading your Follywood columns and would like to
take you up on your kind offer to help promote a great script."

[This is a good start. A clear declaration of intent. It's
been personalized a bit -- the writer has read the Wordplay articles from
back in the old days on America Online.]

After the plot description:

"This is not my first stab at writing. A previous screenplay -- OK but
not great -- is currently under option by The Kaufman Company, Citadel
Entertainment (HBO) and another screenplay was a finalist in the Writer's
Film Project run by the Chesterfield Film Company."

[A nice bit of humility here, with the 'OK but not great' line. Subtext:
"I'm a nice guy. I'm not a nutcase." That subtext needs to be there, and
he's found a good way to do it.]

"Sun Dogs is by far the best thing I have ever written. I would like to
get it made -- and made as well as possible."

[This is a nice way to show confidence. Not a claim that the script is the
best script in the world, just the best thing he's ever done.]

(Jane Espenson has similar counterintuitive advice on her blog at one
point: "I'm big believer in high expectations. Tell people that what
they're about to read/see/taste will be wonderful and they'll tend to
perceive what they expect to perceive. This is why, every time I turn in a
script I proudly announce it's the best thing I've ever written.")

And the ending:

"In this spirit, I am searching for an agent to represent it. Any help
you can give me would be very much appreciated."

[A nice send off -- he's just someone who has a great idea and wants some
help, any help, in bringing the idea to life...Overall, there's a
no-nonsense professional feel to this letter.]

Finally, he signs it with the informal "Cheers", though it has the proper
formal letter stuff at the top and bottom.

You can read the whole query letter here

From these essays, I conclude that these things are important in a letter
selling yourself:

- Signs that you know who it is you're writing to and are selling yourself
on the basis of their self-interest
- Prose that is concise and polished
- Avoids phrases that read awkwardly stiff or formal
- Communicates a bit about where you're coming from and a select few of
your most impressive concrete credentials
- No negativity (unless it's important for showing you're not a nutcase)
- Besides that, a general air of realistic confidence, expressing
the sense that you really believe in what you are selling and expect
that others, if not them, will want to snap it up.
- Crisp and polite openings and closings, not lengthy or grovelling.

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