If you Google ‘how to write a good CV’, you’ll find plenty of good advice. But CV guides mostly only tell you what information to include and how to structure it – they never focus on how to write.
We’ve all met that super-corporate guy who talks in endless buzzwords and business clichés, right? We can’t stand that guy. And yet, most of us talk in that exact same way when we write our CVs – the time when we most need our reader to like us.
It’s just how we’ve always been taught to write CVs. But here’s the thing: when you break out of that pompous tone of voice and write in plain English, you instantly sound more passionate, more employable and much more likeable.
Let’s start with a simple ‘before and after’
One of my clients, a content marketer, bagged her dream job less than a month after I helped her rewrite her CV in 2016. The intro from her old CV went like this:
10-years’ accomplishment surpassing ambitious marketing objectives for market-maker brands. Tireless marketing innovator, penetrating and securing new business within competitive markets. Growth-focused in stewarding accounts to ensure loyalty and increase year-over-year spend.
Pretty dry, huh? Did you even bother reading it all?
Here’s the version we rewrote together – the one that did the business and got her the job:
I like to challenge conventional thinking. I treat my job as a constant quest to find smarter ways of connecting with customers and boosting sales. It’s taken me across a huge number of countries and industries – from San Jose to Beijing, from Cisco to Ministry of Sound.
See the difference? A quick change of tone and suddenly this person sounds pretty interesting. Her writing’s easy to read, and she’s clearly passionate and experienced. So it’s very easy to plonk her CV on the ‘yes’ pile and get her in for an interview.
Using plain English makes you sound more professional – not less
In the before and after I just showed you, the ‘before’ is a perfect example of ultra-formal writing. Writing a CV like this works against you in three ways:
- It makes it really hard to show any kind of passion or personality.
- It makes the reader work really hard.
- It blends in with the other 20 CVs the reader has seen that day.
Writing in plain English solves all these problems. Of course it’s possible to go too far the other way. If you’re using slang words and trying to crack jokes, then you will come across as unprofessional.
But in my experience, writing clearly and concisely in plain English is the number one biggest improvement you can make to 90% of CVs.
So how do we make that happen?
It’s easier than you might think. The truth is, the way we talk to customers or clients is usually the right kind of tone for a CV – professional, but clear and friendly. Here are some simple steps to get you started:
Write in first person
For some reason, we still have this silly tradition of writing our own CVs as if we’re someone else. Like this:
Worked on team of five to increase profits by 32%.
It reads like someone from HR has been following us around, taking very hurried notes on a clipboard. How are we meant to write about ourselves when we’re not allowed to acknowledge that we are, in fact, ourselves?
It’s a needless layer of formality. So instead, keep things simple and write about yourself, as yourself. Like this:
I was part of a five-person team that boosted our profits by 32%.
Use down-to-earth words
This is a very simple way to detox your writing. Just go through it and replace any needlessly formal words with everyday alternatives. For example:
- Require becomes Need
- Inform becomes Tell
- However becomes But
- Obtain becomes Get
This will immediately make your writing more readable. Even if you can’t simplify a word because it’s specific to your profession, you can still tidy up the words around it.
A physics professor, for example, wouldn’t look for a simpler term for ‘sub-atomic particles’. But the words around it can still make a big difference to the tone. Like this:
Devised an innovative model for the observation and analysis of sub-atomic particles.
I found a brand new way of studying sub-atomic particles.
Use contractions to make your writing flow better
This is another very simple way of making your tone nicer to read. When we speak, we don’t say, “I am a manager” or “we are an ad agency”. No, we say, “I’m a manager” and “we’re an ad agency”.
So whenever you can, make use of contractions like these: I’m, I’ve, I’ll, you’ll, you’re, we’re, it’s, that’s, haven’t, wasn’t, isn’t, and so on.
Use sentences of different lengths
Long, meandering sentences are really tiresome to read. So mix it up. You can give your tone an engaging rhythm by throwing in the occasional short, snappy sentence. They can even be as short as two words. It’s fine.
Show, don’t tell
Writers love harping on about this rule. But with good reason.
Ever notice how every person who’s ever written a CV just happens to be passionate and hardworking? What a coincidence.
When everyone’s saying the same thing, it becomes worthless. So you can jump to the front of the queue by showing you’re hardworking and passionate, rather than just saying it. Here’s a quick example:
Hardworking, passionate individual who gives value-added service and always goes ‘the extra mile’ in order to exceed customer expectations.
I set myself high standards for customer service. When I serve my last customer at 5pm, I always give them the same great service and the same smile I gave my first customer, at 8am. And if I have to stay a few minutes late to do it, I always do.
Explaining it like this gives the reader an image of you in their head. When you read the second example, you probably pictured a smiling person serving a happy customer, right?
Did the first example make you picture anything? Probably not.
Conclusion: don’t be scared to be yourself
The heyday of corporate speak is long gone. Correct spelling and grammar are still really important, of course, but nowadays we ridicule people who speak in corporate jargon. Clear and concise writing is the new king.
That’s why the plain English rewrite is always one of the first things I do with a new client’s CV. But the absolute first thing I do? I chat to them. I get to know them. And then I make sure their personality comes though in their writing.
There’s no revolutionary method to it. There’s no fancy psychological trickery. Employers just naturally warm to people who write clearly and show personality.
Of course, there are a few employers who still expect a stuffy, zero-personality style and will frown upon any CV that’s not hyper-formal. But they’re a dwindling minority. And ask yourself – do you really want to work for someone like that anyway?
About the author: Matt Phil Carver is a freelance copywriter, blogger and general word nerd. His website is mattphilcarver.com