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CVs, sense and sensibility

I’ve spent the last few days writing the section of of a training course that deals with writing CVs and resumes. It’s been unexpectedly interesting, perversely enough because most of the material I’ve been dealing with tries to be so damn serious and sensible, and I’ve been buried under a ton or it – advice from jobsearch websites, templates for CVs, example CVs and the like.
Most of the rules for writing CVs and resumes are straightforward and obvious – which is not to say we don’t all need reminding of them from time to time.
Keep it simple (content, language, structure, formatting) because whoever reads it is going to get bored within seconds if the print is too small, layout too fussy, or inappropriate technical language is used. Okay, if you’re a research chemist, automotive engineer, IT specialist or the like you may need to use technical and scientific terms to explain what you’ve been doing for the last few years but most of us aren’t and don’t.
Keep it as short as you reasonably can (1-2 pages for a resume, 3-4 if possible for a CV). No one reading these things wants to scroll through 13 pages of stuff, and the worth of a CV isn’t measured by the weight of the paper pr length of the file.
If there’s an ‘industry standard’ for your industry, use that structure. IT in particular expects a format that doesn’t follow the generic guidelines.
The last couple of decades seems to have seen a move towards opening CVs and resumes with a short personal profile or personal statement. This needs to be specific – ‘good sense of humour’ (or even ‘twisted sense of humour’) may be a de facto requirement of many jobs but no one who reads a CV is going to want to read that. And what makes your particular sense of humour ‘good’ anyway?
For the rest, there seem to be two general patterns to choose from. The first is a short list of skills and experiences, with education and employment shown afterwards as essentially the ‘evidence’ for the key points you want to present about yourself. The second is a more traditional format with qualifications and employment history first, and the skills and experiences section following as an indication of what a reader should be able to interpret from the ‘raw data’.
I have to say, though, that one of the things that strikes me about CVs is how far the quest for seriousness seems to drive out creativity. I doubt that CVs have ever been regarded as appropriate documents for the exercise of creative imagination (ok, people tweak CVs to fit particular job and person specifications and there can be some re-interpretation of one’s life history involved…).
In part this will be down to matters such as legal requirements and processes. If the job of putting bells and whistles on things can legally only be done by someone with appropriate professional qualifications and certification to practise, your CV will need to state that you have been a fully accredited member of the Institute of Bell and Whistle Design and Fitting Professionals since 1973 (or whatever). Recruiters would need to know that. Some of it will also be down to the business culture, because people want to recruit dedicated people who are serious about making a contribution to the corporate enterprise.
However it’s at this point that I thank my lucky stars I’m freelance. And I’ll share a secret with you. I haven’t updated my CV or resume for well over a year. This is because most of my work is self-generated and stands or falls on its own merits, not on a list of previous experience and skills.
As and when I do update them, they should probably start with a profile along the lines of ‘Jon Vagg is an experienced writer, editor, proofreader and researcher. He has a PhD in sociology and writes distance learning courses and training materials in the areas of social science and management. He has also authored several academic and nonfiction books, along with numerous articles and some short stories.’
Finally (for this post) if you’re a creative type, you’re in trouble. Many sources say CVs for ‘creatives’ are often difficult to construct and frequently don’t read in a standard format because they can’t. Frequently they will just boil down to a list of published pieces, or discography, or paintings completed/exhibited/sold, along with a rough indication of current projects. They might include stuff like media appearances, voluntary work and the like, but it’s debatable how much of who a creative ‘is’ can be captured in any traditional CV format.
For me personally, the ‘creative’ side of what I do means that the short author tags that go on jacket blurbs, lists of contributors, etc. are more significant than CVs (not least because they’re probably read by at least three or four more people!). And the idea is usually to intrigue and amuse. I can offer two versions.
The semi-formal statement, used at a recent local literary event: ‘Jon Vagg is primarily an author of educational and training materials. He has been writing speculative/science fiction for around 10 years but only recently started to get published. In 2009 his short stories appeared in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, Sinister Tales, Ballista and Ignavia. He is a recent member (though infrequent attender) of the Speculators writing group.’
The off-the-wall statement, currently tagged to stories sent out to SF/horror mags: ‘Jon Vagg drinks too much coffee and gets bored easily. Much of his writing is done late at night. The nature of his imagination means he has no social life to speak of. He is based in the UK and has previously published in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, Ballista, Ignavia, and online in Dark Fire.’
It would be interesting to speculate about what ‘creative’ things some professional/business people might say about themselves if given the chance, and whether these comments might reveal more intriguing sides of them than their CV.

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