Résumé advice, from someone who knows

Looking for a job

Résumés became a stock in my trade after leaving my 15-year place of employment last summer. A round of layoffs had nudged me toward the door, but upon being invited back I said no. The future in the same role looked bleak; institutional changes diminished its importance and no path to advance out of it was obvious. I decided then to take a chance and forge ahead on my own.

That meant introducing myself to a writing and editing marketplace virtually unaware I existed, and so I experimented with an assortment of tools and tactics to connect with potential clients. Social media, word-of-mouth advertising, personal correspondence and networking events are great for this; they help sell your personality.

When it comes to selling one’s skills, however, the best tool remains a clear, crisp résumé.

Résumés date back more than 500 years to Leonardo da Vinci, who is believed to have written the first one, but they were informal in style and substance until the 1950s. Today, there are three basic types: the functional résumé, listing work experience or skills categorized by skill area or job function; the reverse chronological résumé, listing work experience by date, starting with the most recent, and going back 10 to 15 years; and the hybrid résumé, which mixes the two types.

The typical résumé is short — two 8½-by-11 sheets of paper in length, at most — and direct, highlighting active verbs and essential keywords related to the job sought. Even video résumés are succinct, lasting no more than 60 seconds.

That’s because brevity is a courtesy in the current job market, as employers and potential freelance clients may receive dozens if not hundreds of applications for one position or task. Given this flood of applications, nothing guarantees that those résumés are read carefully.

But there are a few things I have learned through success and failure – mostly failure – that résumé writers can do to boost their chances:

Have a clear focus —Résumés are supposed to land an interview, not land a job. Think of writing one as tapping an employer on the shoulder for a quick introduction. Using that approach, the résumé will likely sound more precise than plodding.

For video résumés, have a prepared script and memorize it. Reading from a prepared script or cue cards makes the performer’s eyes shift, giving the impression that the job applicant is distracted or untrustworthy.

Use clean typography — Certain styles of type read better in print than online, and vice versa. Because employers often ask that résumés be emailed, then print out a hard copy for use in a face-to-face interview, it makes sense to employ a type style that works well in both formats. Ariel, Times and Verdana best fit this purpose. And don’t cram information onto the page; leave room for white space to assure a fresh, inviting look.

When making a video résumé, dress as you would for the interview and use a background that lends itself to the theme of the position sought. For example, regarding writing and editing jobs, backgrounds that include books, magazines or other scholarly items add a formal, cerebral touch. Avoid using a plain white or monochrome background, as this can flatten a person’s appearance on camera.

Use clear language, avoid pronouns — Precise, polite English conveys professionalism; jargon and slang do not. Keep a dictionary and grammar guide close by. Steer clear of writing “I” or “me” because they are redundant in a document lacking any other characters. Use “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or any preferred title, if it is known. Include this courtesy in cover letters and contract bids.

An applicant’s demeanor matters, too, almost as much as proper language. A résumé that’s negative in tone or critical of former employers leaves the reader with a negative feeling about the applicant.

Use descriptive titles — Simply saying “writer,” or “editor,” or “manager” to describe yourself is not enough, as these terms mean different things to different people. A detailed title — end-user documentation writer, acquisitions editor, product development manager — suggests what tasks were involved in the role and paints an image in the employer’s mind.

Use bullet points — Long, gray blocks of type are boring and hard to read. Breaking out main tasks and talents in bulleted lists provides something for the eye to latch on to without searching.

Include specifics — As with titles, specifics are important when describing work history and personal goals related to the job sought. Emphasize achievements for each past position, expectations and aspirations for the new one. Tell an employer what you hope to bring to the job and how you may be able to solve problems related to it. If there are statistics that suit this purpose, include them.

Of course, effective use of detail requires research. Investigate the history of the employer or client before starting to write, and find out more about the job itself through a Google search, and previous or current employees if possible.

Be honest – The urge to embellish a résumé is strong, and usually fatal. Digital record-keeping makes everyone’s life an open book and makes it much easier to find the lie sooner or later. Avoid the needless risk by being straightforward, honest. That’s not to say certain tacit skills valuable to a potential employer should remain obscure, but be certain to describe those skills within their proper context.

Edit with care — Nothing devalues résumés faster than poor spelling and poor grammar. Incorrect names and titles can land résumés into the trash, too. So, read through every word, every sentence, at least two or three times and check all facts, then find someone else to read over your work. Inaccuracies cut deep enough through an applicant’s professionalism to also mar one’s personal integrity. Leave prospective employers and clients thinking you’re invaluable, instead of indifferent.

(An adaptation of this post also appears in The Independent Journalist, a freelancing blog published by the Society of Professional Journalists.)

5 ingredients for a lasting marriage

Wedding ringsTwenty-six years.

Starting this week, that became my answer to the question, “How long have you been married?”

Reactions to my answer through the years have ranged from delight to surprise. The delight usually comes from people who reached, paid homage to and surpassed the same milestone. They understand and appreciate the effort, then admit me to an ethereal club bounded only by the unstated belief that membership is sparse and diminishing.

The surprise spawns from two camps: those who insist I am too young to accomplish any such feat, and those who actually are too young.

Between these rather mild extremes resides the camp that concerns me most — one made from a mix of the wistful and indifferent. Some of these campers wish they were married that long, and maybe strayed outside reason in the effort. Still others can’t conceive of spending that much time exclusively with one person and aren’t inclined to try.

I am confident in my categorizations because nobody reacts silently or indifferently to my answer. People are compelled to compare the size, shape and color of their matrimonial experiences, not out of pride but validation, and they use degrees of courtesy or rudeness to do so. That is because all married people discuss their marriages in public like they talk about their children, pets or vacations. These things double as yardsticks with which we measure our self-worth.

A few people also wonder aloud how a quarter century of companionship is possible, as if this were a traditional recipe and the secret to mixing the ingredients vanished with the last good cook, and upon answering the query I always stumble. Not that I am reluctant to reveal secrets, or that a secret even exists, but because I doubt anyone who has to ask holds any value in perseverance.

For those people who are certain that a recipe exists, however, I will describe my ingredients, mixed in equal parts:

Respect — For any relationship to work, the individuals involved must appreciate one another’s beliefs, perceptions and conceptualizations as unique and precious. Disagreements over these things are possible, perhaps even inevitable, but the differences should not be allowed to detract from the relationship. If they are, the relationship is bound to fail.

Commitment — Marriages require constant maintenance; they are neither perfect nor automatic. The reason is clear: marriages can break and need repair, as with anything that undergoes stress and pressure. The key then is moving forward with repairs even if they hurt, even if egos are bruised and attitudes must be adjusted. Saying “I’m sorry” bespeaks courage; saying nothing bespeaks cowardice. While I know I lack the courage to climb Mount Everest or swim across the English Channel, I also know that is not the kind of courage necessary to make my wife happy and my marriage enduring.

Consensus — This relates to respect, in that spouses should possess the maturity to find a middle ground where they can coexist between divergent beliefs. My wife and I hold distinct views on everything from yard work to laundry, yet neither forces the other to concede. I have lost count of the times we settled our differences by sorting through what aspects about them each of us can accept. Sometimes, too, consensus means trading responsibilities. (After all, I never liked doing yard work and she never liked doing laundry, so that turned out to be a smart trade.)

Teamwork — Marriage, by definition, constitutes two people trying to make a life together. Anyone who expects or even demands to be exactly the same person after saying “I do,” as before saying it should hold off until the compulsion for selfishness and self-interest subsides. Alternately, anyone who treasures autonomy and rankles at relinquishing even a small part of it probably is better off in a relationship where neither partner requires much from the other.

Love — So, how did I know “we” sounded more appealing than “me”? I was an undergraduate in college, the woman soon to be my wife was a graduate student at a university 175 miles away, and one evening she drove down as a surprise. A few hours earlier, she had said by phone that an unexpected project had quashed her plans to visit. I hung up feeling lower than I thought possible about missing another person.

Shortly afterward, her plans changed yet again, and she jumped in the car and sped south without first calling. When she knocked on my door and I saw who it was, my joy reached a level that resonates with me even today.

But that was not “the moment” when I knew I was in love forever. It came later that night, after we celebrated her surprise with an evening on the town. She was leaning against the car waiting for me to unlock the door, nothing more, and I glanced over at her …

… And I knew, in that fraction of a shred of an instant.

No fireworks. No cadre of singers in my mind belting out Handel’s “Messiah” — just an overwhelming flush of confidence and contentment and assurance. A common moment somehow sparked an uncommon feeling. Little else was certain about my life at that point other than an intense realization that whatever came next was worthless without this woman sharing the experience.

A realization like that is the first ingredient, the main ingredient — the secret ingredient, if you will — in the recipe for any marriage. All other ingredients merely enhance it; they do not supplant it. But mixed well, these ingredients retain their cumulative flavor much longer than 26 years.