I enjoy reviewing content in any form. Reviews help me as much as they help others. In the last few years, I may have reviewed over 100 resumes, portfolios, and personal statements. At times, I’ve even provided guidance on email responses sent to recruiters or college admission departments.
While recently reviewing a bunch of portfolios and also a personal statement, I realized that many of my recommendations were about content design. In this article, I summarize these ideas.
Disclaimer: In no way do I claim to know how hiring managers or college admission departments think. Every recommendation I make is grounded in how I professionally write and edit product content i.e. to make content clear, concise, and contextual.
In this article, what is content design?
Our content identity is reflected in how we frame statements to explain ideas. With content design, it is possible for content to have a visual identity as well.
Let’s use this article as an example. The first paragraph in this article begins with shorter and ends with longer statements. The first two paragraphs have a difference in word length. The disclaimer paragraph is styled differently for emphasis. Right after, you see the title of this section.
With such choices, I’ve tried to create visual breakpoints in content. In fact, mindfully creating such breakpoints can bring about surprises in organizing content. (For example, the choice to have a disclaimer in the article.)
For resumes, portfolios, & personal statements
We put considerable effort into presenting our resumes and portfolios. We want hiring managers to review our efforts in detail. However, our applications are likely to have limited time to make an impression. Content style can help.
I look for the following in every document I review:
01. Create variable statement length
In Gary Provost’s book, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing: Proven Professional Techniques for Writing With Style and Power, his most celebrated method is “Vary sentence length and create music.”
Variable statement length is a key opportunity to create some much-needed pause for readers.
A shortcut to variable sentence length — count your conjunctions
My current method is to ask questions about the conjunctions I’ve used in my content. We can reduce the number of commonly-used conjunctions by breaking longer statements in two or by creating bulleted lists.
Here’s a list of common conjunctions I use:
- OR for possibilities — can we create a list?
- BUT for opposing ideas — can we break the statement?
- FOR or SO for connections — can we break the statement?
- AND for listings — can we break the statement or create a list?
Resumes don’t have a lot of real estate for description. Personal statements usually range from 600 to 1200 words. Portfolio case-studies can benefit from storytelling techniques. Variable statement length creates a possibility of improved readability irrespective of medium or space constraints.
This is not an exhaustive list of conjunctions. Grammarly provides a beautiful and detailed refresher.
02. Keep paragraphs under 5 lines
As stated above, you can create music by varying statement lengths. However, the same example is still not the easiest to read. The number of lines in one paragraph can create a mental block.
My product documentation experience tells me that It is easy to gloss over paragraph content over 5 lines. Users of my documentation, recruiters, and hiring managers have a similar goal — skimming through content and finding answers. Longer paragraphs are likely to go unread.
To maintain paragraph size limits, consider information organization
Organized information almost always begins with an idea followed by details that better explain the idea. The In this article, what is content design? section above is in the order of definition, example, and value-add. This is a simple method for drawing virtual boxes around content.
In portfolio case-studies, paragraph length can break both skimmability and consumption. This is even more important for responsive experiences across screen sizes. In personal statements, maintaining paragraph size limits can be a challenge. Here, the key is to vary paragraph length for an improved visual identity.
While searching for a good resource for referencing this idea, I was surprised to find this resource about paragraphs that has large paragraphs of un-skimmable information. Please use this as an example of what NOT to do.
03. Parallelism (not math)
Parallelism in grammar is about having similar verb tenses within or across your statements. While presenting your ideas, editing for parallelism can improve how our content is read.
Parallelism goes beyond just verb tenses. However, verbs are key elements for describing our efforts and experiences in resumes, portfolios, and personal statements.
Consider the following example:
I write to better explain products and features. I am always iterating based on feedback.
While this is simple enough to understand, the verb tenses can be parallel:
I write to better explain products and features. I always iterate based on feedback.
Resumes have key examples of content where we use verbs to showcase effort and experience. For instance, ‘I am collaborating with…’ or ‘I led the project..’. Similarly, portfolio case studies and personal statements have detailed stories about our actions. All explained using verbs.
Be mindful of verb tenses ending in ‘ed’ or ‘ing’
While writing quickly towards a goal, it is not uncommon to break parallelism. Ensuring that the verb tenses match is an easier and valuable edit.
04. The power of line-height
By this point in the article, we have variable statement length with parallel verb tenses in paragraphs that do not exceed 5 lines. For a standard resume or portfolio templates, paste your content and you’re sorted. In case you’re building layouts from scratch or working with customizable templates, give line-height the attention it deserves.
Line-height is powerful — it can improve content consumption irrespective of your choice of font, size, and/or paragraph length. (Note that I am simply providing more context here for a well-known graphic design principle.)
To showcase an example, I am using the same resource about paragraphs discussing paragraphs. In the following screengrabs, compare the same content with different line-heights.
While I wouldn’t consider writing paragraphs this long, a slight update to the line-height makes a difference in how we view this content.
Let this tool do the math for you
Golden ratio typography is your resource for identifying accurate line-height based on your choice of font and font size. The tweaked line-height example above is based on the calculated result from the tool.
While speaking to the value of line-height, I am not ignorant of choosing font styles, font sizes, or font pairings. Check out FontPair.co by Hayden Mills for the value font pairings can create along with examples.
05. The shape of a bulleted list
It’s true. The shape of your bulleted list has an impact on how easily people can skim through your content. To highlight this point, here is a sample bulleted list about bulleted lists:
- Lists can help you avoid longer statements.
- Lists are great visual breakpoints in content. Use lists often.
- Observe the right-angled triangle shape of this list. Such lists read better.
The variable length of each list point here helps in drawing an imaginary slope that connects the ends of these list points. This imaginary slope is deliberate. To extend this idea further, lists with the following slopes and shapes are easier to read at a glance:
What is the value of having lists with a deliberate shape? Each list point has a different length, which creates breathing whitespace for improved readability. (Again, a well-known graphic design principle repurposed here for its value.) It is not by chance that the Create variable statement length section list above has a deliberate shape.
Do we even build such lists?
It is extremely common for list points to span multiple lines. Space constraints in resumes can defeat the idea of shaping a list. Portfolio case studies need a level of detail to showcase a holistic view of your process.
To address these concerns, here are some thoughts:
- Edit: If you must have list points that span multiple lines, fall back to the other style tips — variable statement length, paragraphs under 5 lines, and accurate line-height.
- Reorder: I do this quite often. Wherever possible, reordering list points can help with shaping.
- Break ideas: How important is it to combine ideas in a list point? If it isn’t, let break the ideas further.
- Titles: By this point, you’ve caught on. This bulleted list has a title for each point. Titles add clear context to ideas being presented in your list.
This guide is meant to provide help. That is to say that I am here to provide help. Feel free to send me resumes, portfolios, statements, or any other content form for review and feedback. I commit to providing a response in a short time-frame.
In addition, I am looking for feedback and other recommendations that readers experience and use.