"Most people would prefer not to write a cover letter," says Nancy Buysse, a Twin Cities career consultant and facilitator who conducts a variety of career planning and transition workshops. "They're not sure what to put in it."

Buysse calls the cover letter "a dotted line to the résumé." It doesn't need to be lengthy, but it should be specific, she says. A handout prepared by HIRED, an employment and job-seeking organization that Buysse works with, suggests a three-paragraph approach.

Paragraph One

"Your goal is to spark interest and let the reader know why you are writing," according to the handout. "You need a strong opening," Buysse adds. "Tell them why you want this job."

Paragraph Two

"Your goal is to relate your qualifications to the job requirement. Remember to expand on your résumé - don't restate it," the handout continues. Buysse says the cover letter can be the place to note things that aren't on your résumé but that are relevant to the job. Break through your writer's block by writing in bullet points or creating columns of job requirements matched by your credentials.

Paragraph Three

"Request action. Ask for an interview appointment," says the handout. End on an active note, rather than a lame "I look forward to hearing from you."

Review, Edit, Proofread

The HIRED handout says it will take several drafts to get the letter right. Buysse suggests having another person look at it to check grammar and spelling errors. She also suggests sending it to yourself, taking a fresh look after a day or so to be sure you've said what you want to say.

Writing a great cover letter is a challenge - and that, Buysse says, is why you shouldn't wait until you need one. "All of a sudden, you find the perfect job. If you've been practicing your cover-letter skills, you're ready to apply for it," she says.

HIRED provides work solutions for those facing economic transition. In addition, Buysse says, the Career Crossroads program of HIRED is a fee-based service that offers a range of career development services. For more information, visit the HIRED website www.hired.org or call Buysse at (612) 328 8898.

Free workshops and resources

Nancy Buysse leads free workshops in writing cover letters and résumés through the Hennepin County Library System. To find upcoming classes, go to www.hclib.org and click on "Job and CareerLinks."

The Minnesota Workforce Center System also offers tips on writing cover letters and thank-you notes. Go to www.mnwfc.org/careers.htm and click on the "Job-seeking Resources" link.

Laura French is principal of Words Into Action, Inc, and is a freelance writer from Roseville.