The 17th-century French scientist and mathematician Blaise Pascal said, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” The principle that writing concise documents takes more time than writing long-winded ones applies to just about every type of document, including reports, fact sheets, websites, letters, presentations and applications.
Instead of leaving the preparation of documents to the last minute, take time to:
- Tailor each document to its target audience. When deciding what to leave in or out and how to order your document’s contents, consider what your audience most wants and needs, and prioritize accordingly.
And when it comes to applications, remember: Managers are about as likely to read and remember generic, untailored applications as you are to read and remember your junk mail — and for many of the same reasons.
So your time is much better spent tailoring a few applications to their target audiences than carpet-bombing the world with many untailored, generic applications that will all probably miss their mark. Put another way: If you are unwilling to devote an otherwise enjoyable weekend to tailoring your application to your target job, some of your competitors almost certainly will be willing to do so — and so they will probably beat you in the competition.
To tailor your application to a target job, identify the types of academic and professional experiences as well as personality traits demanded by your target job; carefully troll through your background to identify your matching credentials; describe them; ruthlessly edit your resulting descriptions to eliminate superfluous information; and then order and format your descriptions so your most relevant credentials appear first and most prominently on the page.
- Write to be understood. Consider what background information your audience needs to understand your message and provide it. Define acronyms and technical terms, as needed.
In your applications, assume no previous knowledge about your field or sector so that human resources personnel and managers who have no previous knowledge of your field or sector will understand your application and be impressed by it.
- Work on your document in multiple sessions. It is virtually impossible to crank out a winning document in a single session — even in a long, caffeine-spiked all-nighter.
Rather, crafting eye-catching, informative and easy-to-read documents requires multiple sessions punctuated by long breaks. Only by temporarily detaching yourself and then returning to your document with fresh eyes can you even approximate the perspective of strangers — and recognize problems, such as passages that should be reordered; logical leaps that should be clarified; wordiness that should be economized; long passages that should be broken up with shorter paragraphs and headings; ho-hum passages that demand zest; errors that need corrections; and important information that should be added.
If you don’t have time to let your document go cold for extended periods, let it at least go lukewarm for brief periods, if only by briefly distracting yourself by watering your plants, making a phone call or jamming on your air guitar.
- Proofread your documents scrupulously. Repeatedly print your document and proofread for typos, misspellings, punctuation problems and extra or missing words that will not necessarily be found by spellcheckers and are easier to spot on hardcopy documents than on the computer screen.
Large percentages of federal job applications are rejected solely because of these types of careless applications. If an applicant’s work doesn’t pass muster when he is supposedly putting his best foot forward, it is unlikely to pass muster under less pressured circumstances.
The tragedy of rejections based on careless errors is that the hapless rejectees are almost never informed of why they wiped out. So be forewarned.
- Solicit friendly fire on your documents from trusted advisers before submitting them. The only way to know how you’re coming across is to ask other people, “How am I coming across?” It’s better to find out how to improve your documents when you still have opportunities to improve them than to blissfully submit flawed documents and let your mistakes silently sink you.