Creating a great CV requires a lot of things, some of which can’t be taught or achieved in one article. For a start, to have a great CV you’ll have to have the experience and skills that the job requires: you can’t create an impressive career using some nice formatting.
But assuming you are aiming for a realistic goal, most of the work that goes into the CV is about corralling all your years of work and your vibrant, enthusiastic personality into a few hundred words on a page.
We’ve covered the content of what you ought to put on your CV before, and we’ve mentioned in passing that you should make sure your spelling and grammar is correct, but it’s worth going into more depth about the rules for writing, and in particular how these can become rules for writing a cv.
Excellence appears Effortless
The thing about excellent writing is that it appears effortless. Like anything else done by an expert – whether it’s mastery of a programming language, cooking a gourmet meal or performing a triple axel – it looks like it’s easy, but it’s actually the result of a lot of skill.
That doesn’t mean you need to spend years of your life learning about linguistic rules and reading dry academic journals. What it does mean is that if you put a little more time into the way you write your CV your message will come across more clearly. And with that clarity, the person reading it will be able to concentrate on the important stuff: you.
This applies for all types of CV, but may be particularly important for senior level and executive CVs. Most high-level corporate writing and messaging will have been done by copywriters and communications experts, who know how to present a message. An executive CV should be similar – it should come across as sharp and sophisticated.
George Orwell’s rules for writing
One of the most popular places to start is with George Orwell’s rules for writing. As well as being famous for his dystopian novels and battles with fascists, Orwell was an essayist. One of his essays contained six rules for effective writing. Here they are.
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Applying the rules
It’s useful to break down some of these rules for writing specifically for the purpose of business and CV writing.
The first rule is particularly important when you consider the amount of sales and marketing jargon out there. Don’t go too informal, but just consider how you can break something down to its constituent parts and put it in its simplest terms. It’s actually helpful for working out exactly what you are trying to say.
Rule Two & Three
The second and third rules are basically about keeping it short. Orwell also said that brevity is next to godliness and on the whole this is true. Think back to the first rule, too. Use words like “use” instead of “utilise” and “start” instead of “commence”. They mean the same thing and have a greater impact.
The fourth rule, regarding passive and active writing, is held particularly dear in journalism. It might not be so important in CV writing because you are not describing events that have happened, but it can radically change your writing.
Passive and active writing is about the subject of the sentence. “Bob hit John” is better than “John was hit by Bob.” Not all sentences are as simple as that, of course, but the important thing is to try to keep it in that format. Grammatically, this is called an active sentence, but it will also quite literally feel more active and alive on the page.
The fifth rule, about jargon, could be especially difficult for technical CVs. You won’t be able to avoid some jargon, but just try to consider if it is really necessary. What you could also do is try to confine it to one section of the CV – perhaps have a section outlining your technical capabilities and have the rest discussing your achievements and personal qualities.
The final rule means you should use your common sense. Don’t torture yourself (or your words) in order to stick to these rules. Just thinking about them when you write will be enough.
Just ask Jeff
Perhaps one more rule is worth considering over any other. It’s not another of Orwell’s – in fact, it belongs to someone very different: Jeff Bezos. According to a Business Insider article, Bezos asks his staff to spend several days on their memos, and have them edited and rewritten before they present them in meetings. That may be the best advice: spend some time on your writing, and get it checked. It could make all the difference.