Professional Writing: To Stand Out, Sometimes it’s Hip to Be Square

professional writingPlenty has been written to help you craft the perfect resume, cover letter, or other job search documents. You can find a hundred articles to teach you all about keywords, experience sections, and achievement lists. This advice, if it’s solid, does give you a leg up on the competition. Professional writing, however, is about more than using the proper format and pleasing the applicant tracking system.

To truly stand above, you need to use more formal language in your professional writing.

Formal, Professional Writing

Language, like a living organism, evolves and grows. Just ask anyone who has read Shakespeare. Over time, the way we communicate changes as new words and rules become accepted and old forms fade. For instance, you wouldn’t use “thee” and “thou” today. Colloquial, or casual, language changes rapidly as fads, slang, and convenience influence the way we talk to each other. Often, however, formal, professional language evolves more slowly.

Consider these points during your job search — where professional writing isn’t just expected, it is demanded.

The Comma and the Dash

One trend in casual writing today involves using a dash whenever possible. That’s fine. For many years, the dash virtually disappeared because no one ever used it. It’s nice to see the dash getting some love. Many people, however, seem to think that the dash and the comma are completely interchangeable. They are not.

While commas serve a multitude of functions in the English language, the dash serves one. Use a dash to introduce extra, defining information added to the sentence as an aside. Of course, a comma does this as well. The difference between the two is that a dash is much stronger – it adds more excited emphasis.

Don’t use a dash for any of the functions assigned to the comma, like connecting a compound sentence or setting off an introductory phrase. In fact, since the dash denotes extra emphasis, using it at all in formal, professional writing often seems aggressive. Besides, it tends to make your page look broken up and disjointed.

Conjunction Junction

“And” and “but” are examples of conjunctions. Their function is to join two independent clauses to form a compound sentence. They also denote items in a series. There is no acceptable reason in formal writing to use these words in any other way.

It has become the fashion, in more casual, internet writing, to avoid long sentences by capitalizing a conjunction as the first word of a new sentence. That works on the internet, but it is neither formal nor professional writing. If your thought requires a conjunction but you don’t want to write a compound sentence, think differently.

Font Tricks

When we speak, we place emphasis on a particular word or phrase to create dramatic effect. When we write, we often try to emulate this by writing in ALL CAPS, Italics, or boldface. Yes, that practice makes an impact online and Google loves you for emphasizing important points of your blog post. In reality, however, in professional writing, it distracts the reader’s eye and clutters up the page.

So don’t be too bold. Let your writing stand on its own merits. If you’ve written well, your reader will understand.

No Thumbs

The ubiquitous nature of smart phones has created an entire generation of people who type faster with their thumbs than they do with all ten fingers. Such dexterity makes the instant communication of text messaging possible.

The speed, however, comes via the use of shortcuts as well. Most shortcuts invalidate professional language, making it look like you couldn’t be bothered to form a complete sentence. So, IMHO you shouldn’t use them b/c you wanna look like you care.

See what I mean? Don’t even get me started on emoticons. ☹

Save it for Social

Sometimes we don’t realize we communicate differently in relation to different activities. 20 years ago, slang, or street language, confused many people. Today, we absorb the words and formats we read most often on social media. They become second nature. Learn to separate social media language from professional language. Believe it or not, words like “unfriend” and “selfie” don’t exist in formal writing and no one speaks in hashtags.

All job search related professional writing, including resumes, cover letters, applications, and follow-up emails requires the use of professional language.  So, take a step back and remember: when writing for a professional audience, sometimes it’s hip to be square.


About the Author: Ron Damon is a writer, editor, actor, poet, and social media enthusiast. A former teacher of English and Theater, Ron now concentrates on writing and editing full time. He is not the least bit embarrassed about being a cliché.



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