5 ways to write about yourself that won’t make anyone puke
This is a cross-post of an article I wrote for the lovely people over at Lecture In Progress. (They sensibly titled it ‘5 ways to write about yourself that won’t drive employers away’ though.)
Few topics are more liable to leave you staring bug-eyed at the blank page than writing about yourself. Unfortunately, if you’re starting out in the creative industries you’ll have to do it a fair bit. There’s your CV, for one. Then all the cover letters you need to write when you’re applying for jobs. Plus your website, if you’ve got one. And then there’s LinkedIn and any other networking places you hang out.
How do you sell yourself without sounding like you’re trying too hard? How do you make people you’ve never met interested in what you have to say?
I have some advice. Not on what to say — it’s your life, and your experience. If everybody spoke about the same kinds of things, the world would be a pretty dull place. But there are some tips on how to write about yourself that I think apply pretty much everywhere.
1. Write in the first person
That means saying “I did X, Y and Z”, rather than “Harry did X, Y and Z”.
Some CV-writing guides in particular will tell you to use the third person, but they’re completely out of their minds. Writing in the third person, as if someone else wrote these things on your behalf, makes you sound like a trainee serial killer. It’s obvious you wrote your own CV and website, so you should own it.
“Writing in the third person, as if someone else wrote these things on your behalf, makes you sound like a trainee serial killer.”
2. Give concrete examples
This is especially true in CVs and cover letters. Empty adjectives are the killer here. Exceptional, professional, innovative, forward-thinking, reliable. Don’t say you’re detail-focused; talk about a time you spotted a typo just before something went to press. Don’t say you’re an experienced manager; talk about a time you helmed a group of people through a tricky project. Don’t say you’re innovative; talk about the time your idea changed how your team worked.
And for the love of all that is holy, don’t say you’re a team player, but also effective working alone. Everyone says that and it means nothing. You might as well say you like breathing out, but also breathing in.
3. Write more like you speak
Your writing should reflect who you are as a person. If you’re talking about the fact you conducted management of critical business flow analyses, then you’ll sound deathly dull. No-one wants to work with that person.
So be yourself. Add some personality — you’re trying to stand out, after all. Talk about what you do and why you love it. If a company or client discounts you because you have a sense of humour, chances are they’re not right for you anyway.
That doesn’t mean bigger personality = better writing. If you’re quiet and understated, then be that way in your writing. Whatever you do, just make sure it authentically feels like you.
4. Keep it brief
Your CV, about page, cover letter or social media profile don’t have to get you work. They just have to grab someone’s attention enough that they want to talk to you. Recruiters will snuffle through hundreds of CVs every day; clients will be bombarded with pitches. So even if you’ve got tons of great experience, go for quality over quantity.
People will have zoned out by the second page of awesome clients you’ve worked with, no matter how awesome they are. Stick to your really killer selling points, and never use ten words if five will do.
5. Get a second opinion from someone you trust
This is for two reasons:
• To proofread the heck out of it.
• To check you sound like you.
The proofreading shouldn’t need pointing out, but it does. I’ve rejected hundreds of applications for writing jobs because of typos. Nothing tanks your credibility faster than the lack of care you show if you don’t make sure your spelling and grammar are on point.
It’s almost impossible to proofread your own writing. You go blind to what you’ve written, especially if you’ve fretted over it for a long time. So get someone you know and trust to take a look. (If there’s no-one around, a good trick is to print out what you’ve written and proofread it on paper — we read differently on screen, and you’ll spot things you wouldn’t notice otherwise.)
Whoever reads it should also be checking if you sound like yourself. If they don’t recognise your personality in your writing, is it because you’ve overdone it with the zany charm? Or have you white-labelled your personality, and gone down the corporate drone route?
There’s more on grammar, and how much you should care about it, in this post about Grammar Nazis.