Vocational fiction 101

Writing the perfect resume takes more than extensive experience, it takes a perverse imagination.

Published September 16, 1998 11:14AM (EDT)

When I graduated from college, I thought my ability to operate a Macintosh computer, speak Spanish and make a mean double latte were the skills I would ride to financial freedom. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that my most marketable skill was that embarrassing little habit I'd shunted aside because it seemed so impractical: fiction writing. Not that I was being recruited to apply for positions like "budding novelist" or "sulking poet." Far from it. But when I set out to get a job, that was the very first skill I fell back on. I plunged into my shallow life experience and offered my employers an ever-changing vision of what they wanted: in bulleted poetry. Over the years, I became known for my résumés, because I'd get jobs I wasn't even qualified for. Soon I was helping friends compose their life stories and teaching the perverse art of self-promotion, otherwise known as career counseling.

You may not have ever harbored the urge to write the great American novel, but you still should know that a little imaginative zeal goes a long way in creating that artifact of personal history. Whether you're applying to sling cappuccinos at the local cafe, tutor stuporous teens in the dark art of the SATs or spearhead a high-tech Web site, your fictional talents can help pave the way to a quicker, more painless paycheck.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that you lie. Or even stretch the truth to distortion. Fibbing and fabrication are for fools, as an increasing number of Boston Globe columnists will tell you. I am suggesting that, like any writer, you harness your creative powers to tell the most compelling story you can muster. A résumé, to be frank, is a pathetic little narrative form, but you've got to grab your readers and hold them as long as it takes to wedge your foot in the door.

After years of obsessive résumé writing and editing on behalf of hundreds of career counseling clients, I realized that aside from the basic no-no's (bad grammar, typographical inconsistencies and wooden-sounding objectives), the single most common problem in most résumés is that of omission. Young people are especially inclined to leave out the juicy details, the volunteer jobs, the one-person businesses, artistic creations and diverse hobbies that round out a résumé from a boring list into an irresistible three-dimensional human being.

Here are some fiction writing rules you can apply to the reviled art of résumé writing.

1. Understand your form

Most résumés follow a pretty standard order, which you can choose to change if you want to emphasize one of your strengths.

  • Name, address and phone number/e-mail at the top of the page and in a larger and/or bolder font.

  • Objective: A standard sentence fragment stating your career objectives. If it's not for a corporate job, however, I recommend you eliminate this altogether.

  • Education: Beginning with the present, work back in time, stating your post-high school degrees and experiences. List your college, major or area of expertise, and any graduating honors. Some people list their grade-point average. But in this day of grade inflation, it's pretty damn meaningless and makes you seem like someone too eager to accept a numerical estimation of your worth. I'd skip it.

  • Experience: Begin with the present and move back in time listing all the jobs, volunteer positions and other relevant experiences that bear upon the job you're looking for. If you have a lot of job-related experience and are not as proud of your school performance, you may want to put your educational information after your experience. Note: This will be the section that you'll probably change to tailor your résumé to each job you apply for. (This isn't cheating, it's completely standard practice!)

  • You may also want to add a section called Honors, Prizes and Scholarships or Publications. This gives you a chance to fit in other goodies that won't fit into Education or Experience.

  • Finally, Interests or Activities can allow you to give them some sense of your personality beyond the glow of the office. And under Skills you can be specific about your technical skills, fluency with languages, etc.

2. Write what you know

Make a list of relevant memories and see if any of them can be fashioned into a "volunteer job." Consistently, young college grads underestimate the importance of their "nonprofessional" experience, when they've had their most interesting and challenging experiences outside ordinary jobs, or even accredited classrooms. Think hard about situations when you've worked to create or organize something among friends, neighbors or family. It doesn't need to be a formal volunteer job or internship to show off your skills. Plumb the depths of your memories and bring every relevant piece of information to the fore, then sort them out and fit them into one of your main categories. For instance, when I was 15, I teamed up with two other friends and began catering the parties of family friends. Later, when I applied for restaurant work, I could say I had founded and launched my own catering company.

3. Show, don't tell

Don't simply list your jobs. Try to describe the tasks and make each description as precise and elegant as you can manage. At the very least, choose your words with care. Do everything you can, short of being wacky, to catch and carry the eye of your reader. Avoid repeating words unnecessarily. Instead of saying "managed volunteers, managed office and managed inventory," make sure each of your verbs is different and precise, as in "oversaw volunteers, coordinated office and managed inventory."

3. Get feedback

Just because one person reads and understands your résumé won't guarantee that it makes sense to everyone. The more people you can get to comment on and mark up your résumé, the closer you'll be to communicating exactly what you intend.

4. Writing is rewriting
To misquote Sylvia Plath: Résumé writing is an art/like anything else./I do it so it feels real,/I do it so it feels like hell,/I guess you'd say I've a call.

Writing a résumé -- especially your first one -- can be a painful and frustrating process if you think you can whip one off in an hour or so. A good résumé is the compression of a lot of information and it will take some time to fit together. More time than you'll probably predict. If you go into it with a sense that this is a process, then the process can be more fun than infuriating. Keep revising it and allowing it to change over the course of several drafts.

5. Get to the good stuff

Always put what's most interesting and exciting up front, so job searchers can see it when they give your life a once-over. They don't have time to go searching to discover what a gem you are; you must dazzle them from the start.

6. You are not your work!

That's how one creative writing teacher used to put it. In the same sense, you are not your résumé. If you are having trouble making your résumé into a document that gets you an interview for a job you are amply qualified for, it doesn't mean you're a lousy person or even an unqualified worker. It's simply a reflection on your résumé, a flimsy piece of paper that can change with every experience you have.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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