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.)