Getting Rid of Tattletale Words in Your Résumé

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of
The Frugal Editor: Do-it yourself editing secrets for authors:
From your query letter to final manuscript to the marketing of your new bestseller

People in all walks of life work mightily on perfecting their résumés and other career-building documents and then forget one vital step. An editor. Preferably an editor versed in all the elements of writing including grammar, punctuation, storytelling…wait! Storytelling?

Yes. And some other surprises like marketing—and a little knowledge about psychology won’t  hurt either.

The list is long but it can be shortened by thinking “experience.” A broad range of experience. So, no, your high school English teacher may not be your best choice. Nor, your mother who “did really well in English.”

There are a whole lot of tattletale words you shouldn’t use in your résumé or related documents like biographies, proposals, query letters, and media kits. All of these documents are designed to convince the reader of your ability to do the job—your expertise—and to nudge your career (or product) toward success.   

So what are those words? And how do they relate to storytelling?

Ambitious is one of the most frequently used tattletale words. It seems like a wasted word doesn’t it. A couple more that mean little because of overuse or are downright laughable are highly motivated or responsible. That you are writing this document is an indication that you are ambitious.

This is where that storytelling thing comes in. You tell a little story that subtly shows the responsible, ambitious, or highly motivated aspect of your work habits. Using the age-old writers’ motto, “show, don’t tell,”  will keep your reader from asking—often with a touch of irony—what makes you ambitious. King Midas was ambitious. Maybe your reader assumes your father got tired of seeing you playing video games and you got ambitious only when it looked as if the couch would no longer be a good place to park yourself.

So what is your story? Tell about the upward movement in your chosen career or even between careers—how one informs the other and gives you knowledge and a dimension that no other applicant is likely to have.

Hardworker and go-getter seem as useless in a résumé or query letter as ambitious. It’s like tooting your own horn. The person reading it might ask, “Who says?”

Overblown adjectives. Words like exciting and amazing—even when they describe results or projects—are anathema. They have the same problem as hardworking above. I call this the awesome syndrome. They are words that tempt a reader to scoff. Instead tell a story about the extra effort you put into a project and the difference it made. Or quote one of the rave reviews you received from one of your supervisors in a periodic assessment, recommendation, or endorsement.

Team player has been a cliché for decades.. Instead choose a group project you’ve worked on and tell about your contributions. Or just list some of the ways you might have helped another department or division. And, because human brains have been wired for stories since we sat around the fires we made in caves, make it into an anecdote if you can.

Think out-of-the-box is also a cliché-ridden no-no. It’s storytelling time again

Microsoft Word. I’m proud that I can produce an entire book using Word from its Contents to its Index to its Footnotes. I love that I don’t have to spend time learning another program. But there’s no point in telling people that I’m an expert at Word. Everyone is. Of course, I can use it prove another point like how well I have managed to adapt its features to new, advanced project and tell how much time I saved by doing that rather than learning a new program. I might mention how much more professional it looked even as I saved that time. And I might mention that my project got rave reviews.

Some frequently used words like synergy have become a way to insert some humor into a résumé and that has become as much of a cliché as the overuse of the word. Marco Buscaglia picked this word out of the hundred (if not thousands) of popular words I call business-ese. You can avoid them by reviewing your copy and purging anything that sounds officious including most words with more than three syllables.

Think in terms of relationships, colleagues in other departments, associates in competing companies, respected academicians, mentors beyond your teachers. Though a good story can take even that kind of mentorship out of the humdrum and into an Aha! Moment.

Before you send off your paper, go over it. Find all the weak verbs—is, be, do—and use your thesaurus to strengthen them and to make them more accurate.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson was an instructor for UCLA Extension's world-renown Writers' Program for nearly a decade and edits books of fiction and poetry. She  is the author of the HowToDoItFrugally series of books for writers including The Frugal Editor  and The Frugal Book Promoter. They are both USA Book News award-winners and both have won several other awards. Her How To Get Great Book Reviews Frugally and Ethically: The ins and outs of using free reviews to build and sustain a writing the newest book in her HowToDoItFrugally series of books for writers. Her The Great First Impression Book Proposal is a booklet that can save anyone writing a proposal time reading tomes because it can be read in 30 minutes flat.

Carolyn is the recipient of the California Legislature's Woman of the Year in Arts and Entertainment Award and was honored by Pasadena Weekly for her literary activism. She is also is a popular speaker and actor. Her website is


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Linda Wilson said...

This post is helpful to anyone looking for a position. So important in how we present ourselves to future employers. Here's a nit-picky Sunday morning question: should the word world-renown be world-renowned? (hope this gets a chuckle)

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Linda, I'm pretty sure you have a copy of my The Frugal Editor. ( So, glad you have a sharp eye. Please review the part about the difference between style choices and rules. This choice? Because world renowned (nouns here) is so common that few would mistake which word modifies which noun. But the choice is yours and mine to make. Now that the hyphen is catching on, some are overdoing it a tad. Some just like to take no chances with clarity. Maybe I should rearrange my priorities? Ha! @Linda Wilson

Karen Cioffi said...

Carolyn, great tips on words not to use in your resume! I have all your frugal books and they're full of valuable tips for writing and book marketing!

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