The Art of Writing About Yourself

This is a post I originally wrote in 2015 for a lovely startup called TalentRocket, who are sadly no more. However, the team now run ThriveMap, a culture fit assessment tool that helps companies measure the fit between how their teams and how candidates like to work. If you hire people, have a look.

The age of the CV is almost over. Thank heavens.

I’m sure it’s a familiar scene.  You’re sprawled out on the couch in your underpants, surrounded by empty Pot Noodles and coffee mugs. You’ve spent the day, like many others, churning out the same emails over and over. The copy-paste shortcuts are etched into your brain, your incrementally-tweaked cover letters now littering the inboxes of recruiters across the city.  You feel a vaguely uneasy sense of productivity. Tomorrow, the cycle repeats. “Surely someone will call soon,” you think.

You don’t get any calls.

It doesn’t have to be this way any more. The internet – surely by now the source of 99% of job-seeking activity – is now a sparkling well of rich visual media; interactive, editable, democratised. You (and that’s the ‘you’ who were Time’s Person of the Year 2006) now have endless ways of demonstrating your worth to potential employers, and the web is your canvas. So how do you make use of all these opportunities?

You have to be able to sell yourself, and that means write about yourself.

Photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash

When you’re looking for a job, you want to let the world know how great you are. Graphic designers have always had portfolios, for instance. Nowadays, it’s the wordsmith’s turn – not only can you sell yourself with a cover letter, but also your LinkedIn description, your Twitter bio, your page, and so many others. Having a digital presence linked to your real name is almost unavoidable, and whatever platform it is, you’re sure to have written at least something describing you and your life. Even starting a blog in your area of professional interest is a great way to show passion for the job – and you can set one up in less than a few minutes.

Personal Branding is a term popularised in the last few years, especially amongst the entrepreneurial set. Some think it’s a slightly insidious, dehumanising way of presenting a persona detached from the reality of living. I do lean towards agreement on this one – I’m not a fan of smug self-promotion – but I can’t deny the idea carries a lot of weight. Despite not wanting to create a ‘corporation of yourself,’ society is founded on the subtle masking of our true selves, and you’ll have to accept it. (Corporation stems from the Latin corpus, meaning ‘body’; take that as you will.) Digital media only makes it more prevalent. It’s something you have to do.

So, I’d like to offer a few tactics to help you along the way when it comes to writing. This isn’t about what to write – that’s for another post. It’s about the process of getting those words out, ready for the world to read them.

I just want you to remember that your words are incredibly powerful, and communicating well is what got me into the world of exciting, fulfilling work – it’ll do the same for you too.

Writing is an art form that has impact wherever you practise it.

A few suggestions:

Read your work

Look, I know. I’m sorry. You’re busy. You didn’t want to be told something as obvious as this. You’ve just spent two hours staring at your computer screen, slowly melting into a numb puddle of your former self. It’d be impudent for some guy on the internet to just roll up and tell you something so glaringly obvious.

But seriously, read your work.

I once spent two weeks applying for writing and editing jobs without realising my CV contained this diamond of poetic irony:

“Excellent attention to datail.”

I didn’t get any calls.

Avoid the Curse of Knowledge

The Curse of Knowledge, as neurolinguist Steven Pinker writes in his incredible modern guide to writing, A Sense of Style, is “a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.”

The insistence on littering prose with gibberish is an affliction of many modern writers. It’s a way of appearing intelligent and trustworthy when you might not actually have the chops to back it up. The problem is, it alienates your reader; even if they’re in the same field as you, an overuse of technical jargon is going to eventually grind them to a halt. It’ll turn your story into confusing sludge that eventually drives your reader elsewhere (and in our field, that means to another candidate’s page).

The key is to keep it simple, reduce things down to their elements, and above all: be empathetic. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes, and imagine what they’re thinking when they read your work.  Do you really think they’ll understand that 74-word run-on sentence about business process improvements? Or will they care enough to finish it before giving up halfway and closing the tab?

“A surprising amount of jargon can simply be banished and no one will be the worse for it. A scientist who replaces murine model with rats and mice will use up no more space on the page and be no less scientific.”

Steven Pinker

Actually, I’d suggest you read the entirety of A Sense of Style. It’s probably one of the only books out that preaches the art of writing well in the digital age. For a book so educational, it’s surprisingly moreish, although not a light bedtime read.

Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash

Read fiction

The more you come to love words, the more you’ll enjoy the act of writing. There’s nothing like hammering away at a chunk of prose, reading it back, and thinking that maybe – just maybe – someone could pay you to do this one day.

When your head is full of business jargon, and you’re feeling fatigued, take a break. Get away from the screen, and find some art. This is the last paragraph I loved enough to write down, an excerpt from Charles Frazier’s haunting, ethereal Nightwoods:

“The day the children came was high summer, the sky thick with humidity and the surface of the lake thick and iron blue. On the far side, mountains layered above the town, hazing upward in shades of olive until they became lost in the pale grey sky. Luce watched the girl and boy climb out of the backseat of a chalky-white Ford sedan and stand together, square to the world. Not really glaring, but with a manner of looking at you and yet not at you. Predatory, with their eyes very much in the fronts of their faces and scoping their surroundings for whatever next prospect might present itself, but not wanting to spook anybody. Not yet. Foxes entering henhouses, was the way Luce saw it.”

This is the magic someone can weave with words. You can do this too. There are no fancy words or strained metaphors here. Just observations.

Write interesting stuff

I’m not going to say it. It would be apt for me to recommend you write something awesome. I won’t. Not even because that’s my least favourite word in the English language. But because you should know that anyone who comes across your words online has a million other distractions ready to grab their attention any moment. If you’re interesting, you’ve got ‘em.

You might have only just graduated, and have barely any experience in the field you want to go in. But you’ve just spent three years in a microcosm of academic rigour, groundbreaking research, and sexual anxiety. Surely you’ve come out of there with at least one story to tell?

Or maybe you don’t have a degree (me neither!) and you spent a few years after school finding your feet. What did you do? Travel? Read books? Nothing?

Did you work a soul-crushing dead-end job just to pay the rent? I bet it toughened you up. Write about what you learned from your most miserable working day ever.

It doesn’t really even matter what you’re writing about. As long as you can write with passion and clarity, you’re set. Brian is a pigeon who’s been writing about being a pigeon since 2006. He has over 4000 subscribers to his email list. His blog is eminently readable to this day.

Have you ever played a video game? Cooked a nice meal? Watched The Fast and The Furious? Pigeons don’t do these things. You have more interesting things to write about than a pigeon. Write about them!

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Use fewer words

Go back. Read it over again. Do you need that adverb? Sure?

Delete words until your sentences are on the brink of turning into nonsense. Then stop.

I love deleting things.

Edit ruthlessly, and your ideas will shine through all the brighter.

So go on, open up a new notepad and start telling the world about what you can do. Talking about yourself is fun – so is writing about yourself.

You were Person of the Year., for goodness sake. That’s something to write home about. Right?