The elements of résumé style

Writing wisdom from Strunk and White

The The classic "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White is not just for term papers. If your copy has been buried in a box since graduation, dust it off and polish your résumé with its timeless advice.
Elementary rules of usage and composition
· "Use the active voice."
· "Put statements in positive form."
· "Use definite, specific, concrete language."
As the book's introduction states, the authors are all for "cleanliness, accuracy and brevity." They want writers to select words that convey exact meaning -- an excellent idea on résumés when you want to make a big impression in a small space.
"I often see dry, passive language that makes the job seeker appear as a follower or simple doer rather than a leader or someone who drives results," says Abby M. Locke, master résumé writer and personal brand strategist for Premier Writing Solutions in Washington, D.C. "For example, 'Responsible for the development of new programs and services' works better when rewritten with active, engaging language like 'Conceptualized and created revenue-generating programs and services that increased the company's bottom line by 20 percent.'"
Locke also reports that candidates get stuck in a rut of using the same verb over and over again, such as "developed new brochures," "developed marketing materials" and "developed a system." "When bullets like these are read very quickly, the only words that the reader remembers are 'developed, developed, developed.'"
Another elementary rule to remember: Watch tenses. Strunk and White note that "shifting from one tense to another gives the appearance of uncertainty and irresolution." Tiffani Murray, a résumé writer and career consultant for, says that she's seen gaffes where the applicant has used two different tenses in the same sentence.
"For past roles, you should use past tense," Murray says. "For the current job that you are working in, present tense works unless you are referring to a project that is completed. You want to be consistent and accurate with your tense in portraying what you have done in the past for an employer and what you are doing now."

Words and expressions commonly misused
Many a candidate writes that he "lead a team" when he meant "led." Another common dilemma: "effect" versus "affect." (The former can be a noun meaning "result" or a verb meaning "to accomplish" or "to bring about." The latter is a verb meaning "to influence.")
Carolyn Yencharis Corcoran, assistant director of the Insalaco Center for Career Development at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., reports that job seekers often confuse:
· "to" and "too"
· "your" and "you're"
· "there" and "their"
· "then" and "than"
· "wonder" and "wander"
· "its" and "it's"
· "a" and "an" before a word that begins with a vowel (as in "a excellent opportunity" when it should be "an excellent opportunity")

An approach to style
· "Avoid fancy words."
"Using language that is too formal or too academic can make an applicant's résumé and/or cover letter sound derogatory or speechlike, which may appear like you are trying to fool the employer about your qualifications," Corcoran says. "The best way to set yourself apart is with examples that use industry-relevant words from your experience, not formal words that may make the reviewer feel stupid or -- if used incorrectly -- laugh at your application."
· "Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity."
"Most people write about their titles and functions in terms they understand, instead of taking into account if it will be understood by a hiring authority," says Tony Beshara, author of "Unbeatable Résumés: America's Top Recruiter Reveals What Really Gets You Hired." "Likewise, most people write the names of the companies they have worked for with no explanation about what the companies do. There are 7.5 million companies in the United States ... most of us don't know what any of them do. It needs to be explained in detail."
· "Do not overstate."
Finally, heed Strunk and White's warning, "When you overstate, the reader will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in his mind."
"I advise students not to say they are 'excellent speakers who have extensively ... ' or other similar phrases," says Cynthia Favre, director of career services at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. "Comparative words like 'excellent' raise the question: Compared to whom? And most hiring managers will have a hard time believing a 21-year-old new graduate has done anything 'extensively' anyway. Instead, give evidence, and let the reader decide if it is excellent or extensive."