Albert Einstein's genius extended in many directions, including how to write. Einstein gave this advice: "If you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to to the tailor."
In my writing, I try to use language that is plain and direct. Too often, I read resumes that are cluttered with details that are not relevant to hiring managers. In many cases, clients use jargon that will only be understood by their current employer, the job they want to leave. How can you avoid this problem? Read what you write through the eyes of you intended audience. For resumes, that means recruiters and hiring managers. Use language that speaks to what they need and understand. Simple and clear wins the day.
I was working on a project on Saturday that was especially frustrating. A client needed a targeted cover letter. He did a great job of describing why he was a perfect for a new job at a company where he already worked. I've written this kind of letter before and thought it would be a breeze. So I started writing and got stuck. I was putting words on a page (screen), but they didn't say what I wanted. I'd stop and start again. After half an hour of getting nowhere, I closed the file, shut down the computer, and went home.
The next day I went to work, which I don't like to do on Sunday unless I have to. This time the words rolled and the editing was fast. I hit all the points my client wanted to make, and the letter sounded good. After receiving it, he wrote back that no edits were needed. Sometimes, the best way to deal with writer's block is to just walk away. Delete what you've written and start over. It's hard to throw it all out, but I've found that is often the best way to get around a problem. Start over. Just make sure you're giving yourself enough time to meet your deadline.
A client brought me a resume that had been written by a professional service. She was seeking a role as an administrative assistant, and she was especially troubled by two job descriptions that were each one sentence long:
1. Effectively performed a variety of duties within office settings at several organizations; consistently demonstrated a strong work ethic and capability to adapt new environments.
2. Conducted numerous daily responsibilities entailing optimal organization, coordination, scheduling, and issue resolution for a fast-paced department compromised of 205 personnel.
Both of these sentences suffer from the same problem. They are packed with generalities that do not address an employer’s needs. We do not know what skills or experience the job seeker is offering an employer. Compare these two examples:
1. Supervised business operations for an electrical contracting firm. Processed a payroll for as many as 20 employees. Managed accounts payable and accounts receivable. Wrote correspondence, and took dictation from the owner. Coordinated transfer of documents needed to close contracts. Maintained office supply inventory and ordered new stock. Answered phones, routed calls, and took messages. Kept the office clean and organized.
2. Supported 4 executives, working proactively to address each individual’s needs. Maintained and updated each executive’s calendar. Screened calls, took messages, and set up meetings. Scheduled travel and lodging. Set up and managed expenses accounts. Created presentation materials, including PowerPoint files.
Keep the language of your resume simple and clear. Make sure that it speaks to the employer’s needs. If a sentence feels too thick, break it down so it is easy to read. Employers receive hundreds of resumes for most positions. If you’re language is foggy, one thing is guaranteed: you will not be called for an interview.
This morning a radio news report said there was no white or black smoke coming from the White House during the president’s meeting with congressional leader. The person who wrote the news report was trying to be cute. Black and white smoke are the signals the Vatican uses to announce voting on a new pope, which is another issue currently in the news. However, by mixing these details the news writer’s attempt to be cute resulted in confusion.
We can fall into the same trap in writing resumes and cover letters. Heavy use of jargon or specialized language often does more to confuse than enlighten. Some people also try to sound impressive and rely on multi-syllabic words that make reading difficult. For example, most words ending in -ize are nouns or adjectives pretending to be verbs. Another word trap is using the language used by former employers. Companies often develop their own language, which is meaningless to anyone who does not work at that company.
Test everything you write by asking these two questions: Would a perspective employer understand this? Would she care? These questions will keep your resume and cover letter focused on what the employer needs, which is all that matters. When it comes to words, cute does not sell. Usually, it just leads to confusion.
[On Sundays, this blog explores topics beyond its normal focus in “Sabbath,” a feature inspired by the similarly titled poems and collections of Wendell Berry.]
I’ve grown fond of a new poet, Simon Armitage. His poetry is accessible without ever feeling dumbed down or cliched. In The Shout: Selected Poems, Armitage has several poems about a urban everyman named Robinson, whose life is tragic in the sense that he is constantly bored, a hamster on a wheel.
The poem Robinson’s Resignation captures this feeling and what can be done about it. It is a simple poem, three stanzas and a telling final line. In the first stanza, Robinson grumbles that he is “done with this thing called work, the paper clips and staples of it all.” He is sick of complaining customers and their “foul-mouthed” children. In the second stanza, poor Robinson spews hate for something almost everyone loathes – meaningless, endless meetings. In the final stanza, he explodes the myth about the “friendship thing”: “I couldn’t give/a weeping fig for those so-called brothers/who are all voltage, not current.” Robinson walks away with a last line that is pure dismissal: “This is my final word. Nothing will follow.”
Some people like to read into poems like this. They would say the final line implies an ultimate ending, possible a suicide note. My take is simpler. Robinson’s lament reflects a frustration I frequently see with my clients. People are pushed to the brink at their jobs, so they walk way. Nothing will follow with the job they are leaving, but they quit in the hope of finding something better: better pay, less boredom, a boss who is not a sadist. If Robinson were a real person and needed money, what would follow this poem is a job search. We often make strong declarations like “nothing will follow” only to change our minds the next day, if not the next hour.
I love this poem because it shows despair and frustration turning it a type of power: self-determination. One book I’ve often recommended to clients is Seth Godin’s The Dip, which explores how and when to quit things. Godin challenges the claim that winners never quit. He writes, “Winners quit all the time.” They know how to quit the things at the right times and stick with what will help them to achieve their goals. Based on Armitage’s other poems about Robinson, I don’t think this poor man will ever be a winner, but his world is much like ours, so we can laugh at him and ourselves, hopefully learning in the process. I strongly recommend – in particular order – The Dip, Seth Godin, Simon Armitage’s poetry, and quitting. All are empowering.