Use “Elegant Variation” in Your Resumé

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This is a guest post by Debra Wheatman. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.

W. Fowler coined the term “elegant variation” to denote the unnecessary use of synonyms to denote a single thing.  One of his examples was a newspaper excerpt in which the writer referred to the same person, the King of England, as Emperor, His Majesty, and the Monarch.  Fowler’s objection to this kind of “elegant variation” was that

“the effect is to set readers wondering what the significance of the change is, only to conclude that there is none.”

When it comes to drafting a strong resumé, elegant variation is not only acceptable, but desirable.

Your resumé is a marketing document. The product being marketed is you. The death knell of any marketing campaign is boredom. Boring products don’t sell. If your resumé comes across as uninteresting, so do you: you probably won’t get put in the short pile; you probably won’t get interviews, and someone with a more exciting resumé will get the job.

Many resumés use the same verbs and phrases over and over again. You can use “elegant variation” to engage the reader with the use of compelling, absorbing, engrossing, gripping, riveting, and fascinating action verbs and descriptive words.

Here are some examples of “elegant variation” in action –

Why say “led” when you can claim to have spearheaded, propelled, pioneered, orchestrated, officiated, optimized, instituted, inspired, headed, governed, enacted, directed, crafted, controlled, championed, built, or supervised.

Why say you “developed” something when you can use cultivated, advanced, evolved, fostered, amplified, promoted, expanded, actualized, refined, augmented, enriched, extended, magnified, or strengthened.

Why “handle” something when you can address, advance, alter, apply, centralize, compile, conduct, construct, coordinate, determine, execute, exhibit, formalize, govern, oversee, or establish it.

Obviously, these words cannot and should not be substituted without understanding context and nuance. It behooves you to spend the time to find alternates whenever possible.

There are numerous tools that can help your resume be more stimulating. I have a dog-eared and coffee-stained copy of Roget’s International Thesaurus. This book was a gift from my father when I was in college and is still without a doubt, the most useful resource for writing – period. When I am writing for clients, including business documents, resumés, and cover letters, I keep this book very close by to help me identify synonyms to avoid repeating the same words over and over.

The Internet is a wonderful source of new words to use in your career documents. Some examples that I use regularly are dictionary.com and visualthesaurus.com.

Job descriptions can provide a plethora of phrases and key words that you should review. Part of what draws the attention of a hiring manager is the use of key words that are related to the job vacancy. It is very easy to identify positions online; review the roles in connection with your résumé so you can create some compelling content as you draft your document.

Employ some creativity when creating your focused, succinct, cogent, inspirational, targeted, exceptionally results-focused résumé. (How’s that for a few adjectives?) Entice your reader with a taste – not the plate of what you have to offer!

Debra Wheatman is a human capital management strategist and the founder of Careers Done Write, a career services firm. Debra is also the Career Doctor, a career advice blog for business leaders and executives.

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5 thoughts on “Use “Elegant Variation” in Your Resumé”

  1. Strikes me that this is a call for obfuscation rather than clarity.

    I’m sure a well written CV is something any reader would applaud but I’m with Mr Fowler when it comes to “elegant variation”. I wonder if the irony was intended when he labelled this behaviour as “elegant variation”?

  2. On the topic of obfuscation versus clarity I think the point is slightly more complicated than that. Much like the Force, elegant variation can be used for ill, here being obfuscation and or deception, but it also does serve the purpose advertised in the article. In my eyes the issue is clearly one of scope.
    When writing a newspaper article the rules are different than one would employ when writing elsewhere. A news article should communicate clearly the actual news, not distract the reader with ornamental text, and ideally conserve space. For a resumé, while you should also be concise and informative, being too boring is also a concern.
    Because of the already repetitive nature a resumé is likely to have, it is useful to avoid using the same word or term too often or too closely.

    That having been said, I would imagine that the type of job that the resumé is being prepared for would also factor in. A highly technical job might call for itemized lists or other representations that obviate the need for this variation, whereas more creative or free form positions might well benefit more from the wordier and less boring method.

  3. To startler:

    I think the author’s point is using more specific collocations instead of cliches throughout resumes. Have a look at the ‘developed’ example, I would definitely say ‘enriched the culture’ rather than ‘developed the culture’, or ‘amplified the sound’ instead of ‘developed the sound’.

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