Four steps to a CV, three steps to a bio

I suppose I can tell you this now, since it is regrettably a hell of a long time since I did it, but when I was in college I wrote CVs for people. Anybody. Everybody. I did it as a favour, I did it for free – though nice people bought me meals for it – and after a while I wrote them very well.

That’s the thing. I practiced writing CVs by writing them for, I don’t know, a couple of dozen other people. Then I wrote mine and I’d learnt how to do it.

That may be mumble mumble years ago but the things I found out have stayed with me since. Here’s how to knock up a CV, especially if you’re a writer.

1) Bollocks to modesty. There’s a difference between boasting and lying by omission. You got on the New York Times Bestseller List? Say so. It’s a fact. Don’t qualify it (all US book writers were on strike that week), just state it.

2) Nuts to academic good practice: you are not applying for a university post, everything they tell you to do on CVs is wrong. Nobody gives a damn about how you’re interested in ballroom fish photography, they want to know you can do the job. Tell them that by leading with your latest work and then follow with the next most relevant thing. Divide it up into sections if that means you can group two long-apart events without looking strange.

3) Remember that the job of the CV is to get you an interview. Don’t put so much in there that they can effectively interview you on the page. The CV gets you in the door, nothing more than that.

4) Be plain, be simple, don’t go over a page.

That third point is key: remember the job this document is there to do and make it do just that. CVs get you interviews, The End. Getting the job is down to you in the interview.

Equally, a bio has a specific job, it’s just harder to define. You’ll get asked for bios for your books, you’ll need one for your website, it’ll just keep coming up a lot so having one ready is handy. As I write this to you, I need to write a new bio. I’ve got one ready to send when it’s needed quickly but because I’m tailoring this one specifically to the company that wants it, I’m going to rewrite it. The thing is that rewriting won’t take me much longer than copying and pasting the regular one because I do bios in the same way every time:

Look at who the bio is for or what the event is. Find two things you’ve done that are directly relevant and a third that is as far away from it as possible. Then write as little about each as you can.

You end up with something like this:

William Gallagher writes Doctor Who audio dramas and books on television media. He once had afternoon tea on a Russian nuclear submarine and regrets calling the place a dive.

Becoming Steve Jobs

Nobody’s perfect. But some people are very interesting. I’d have said both of those things to you about Steve Jobs a long time ago but I’d also have added that I wasn’t that fussed. I’m not sure that I am now but if nothing else, that man got stuff done. You can well argue that it was all the people around him, but he got many or most of them and he got them doing the things they got done. He managed them, at the very least, and reportedly inspired them too.

Actual inspiration. It does happen. I have been inspired by people. I had a natter this afternoon that has set me off writing something I Do Not Have Time For So There but I will do.

But I’ve also had just the smallest, tiniest taste of what it is like managing people and I don’t want to go there again. I think I’ll have to, but I also think this time I’ll get to pick the people. Wish me luck.

Becoming Steve Jobs is a biography with a purpose: while it charts the Apple guy’s life, it does so to examine very specifically how he began as this wild child and ended as this venerated industry genius. Not how he got his ideas, so to speak, not what he did with his talents or his time, but how he worked with others and became great at it.

Or at least mostly great. Usually great.

The book is not the hymn of praise to Jobs that you might expect after Apple staff keep talking about it: instead it is very clear about his reprehensible traits.

Some of those you know, especially if you made it through the boring official biog, but there is plenty that is new in this book and I want to cautiously recommend it. If you’re an Apple fan, go get it, you were going to anyway. If you’re not, then go to Amazon and have a look at the Peek Inside stuff, see what you think. There is much to enjoy here and much to learn from, too.

Though I did just say the official biog is boring. If that’s down one end of the scale of biographies, there is one that is at the other end – it’s much better than either the official Jobs biog and it’s better than this new one. Unfortunately, it’s not about Jobs. It’s Leander Kahney’s Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products.

Such a good read.

Writer’s Notes: how to write a bio

Your editor wants one, the festival you’re appearing at wants something for their brochure, you’re mocking up a new website, the list goes on and each one demands a bio. What a good thing that writers are ego-machines able to trot out a swift self-praising eulogy at the slightest hint of a request.

It is egotistical to write your own biography, even when you’re just talking of a paragraph for a theatre programme. But it is also a writing job. More than that, it’s a selling job. Now, this won’t exactly help you when you sit down to write one but each time you are asked for a bio or you see a place you can send it, you are not actually writing a bio. You are writing a pitch and you are writing a sales proposal and you are writing an advert.

There’s nothing like putting the pressure on you, is there?

If you’re sending a bio to someone along with material, if you’re pitching yourself and your material then your bio is very much part of that. It is factual in the sense that it must be true but it isn’t factual in the sense that it has to be a dry chronological chronicle of your career. I think schools and universities have a lot to answer for with the damage they do to how people write CVs.

Whether you regard yourself as a commercial writer or not, your bio is commercial. It is selling you – and then it is selling them, the editor and the organiser and the producer. Bios need to be something they can pop straight into their brochure or programme and forget about. Know that they will make them, the editor and the organiser and the producer, look good for having got such an interesting writer.

Oh, and it has to look different to the place down the road where you appeared last year.

As with all things sales, too, you need to do every bit of this selling business quickly. The fewer words, the stronger the words – though this is a family show – the better. Twitter is great practice for writing with flair but precision. Poets are fantastic at loading words with enough meaning to fill books. Scriptwriters are superb at dialogue that sounds natural yet conveys immensely important information.

It’s only novelists and academic text writers who are screwed.

For them and for every type of writer, though, do the Three Strikes Bio. I’ve mentioned this before, including in the book The Blank Screen but have only this moment thought of a name for it.

Here’s what you do to dash off a Three Strikes Bio.

1) Decide what and who you need the bio for. What is it selling? Your latest book, your first play, their workshop?

2) With that in mind, look through your CV for two things that are in some way relevant. If you need the bio for your workshop on teaching nuns to write about the ocean, that novel you wrote set in a convent has got to go in there. And so has your round the world yacht trip.

3) Look through your CV for one thing that is not relevant. Not relevant to the thing you’re pitching and not relevant to writing, either. Something that is so not relevant, it is far, far away from anything even approaching relevancy. For that nun ocean workshop, if you’ve once been bodyguard for a daytime TV celebrity, that’s the one.

Write these three things down and do it simply, do it straight. No embellishments, no quotes, no detail. Just third person you did this, you did, you do the other:

Susan Hare wrote first hit novel Convent Sunset while cruising the Mediterranean during her charity round-the-world race. She has also been a bodyguard for Cash in the Attic star Curt Jaw.

That’s a pretty good bio: you’d go see her, wouldn’t you? But it’s straight, factual, easy. I wanted to embellish the first line with the name of her boat but I was just after telling you not to add details, so I didn’t. But between you and me, I think her boat would’ve been called the Pink Baracuda.

Seriously, there is something about being concise that is strong. Too much detail means desperation, I think. It’s like CV: we think a CV has to get us a job but it doesn’t and actually it mustn’t. The job of a CV is to get us an interview. No less, sure, but certainly also no more. People must not be able to consider and then reject you on the information you’ve given them on the CV, they must be tempted to bring you in for a chat.

Bios are true but they are not evidentiary or documentation, they are sales.

Write like you’re the CEO

There’s an interview doing the rounds that apparently features John Sculley talking about Steve Jobs and Apple. (Previously on Sculley… Jobs hires him, they’re best pals, then they’re not, Sculley fires Jobs. Now read on.)

I say the interview apparently says this because, on the one hand, I haven’t watched it yet – I thought we could do that together – and on the other because every bleedin’ interview with that man is about exactly that same topic.

What I’m interested in more, from our productivity point of view, is how Sculley attempted to shape his story when he was still in the thick of it. He wrote a book called Odyssey: From Pepsi to Apple which at the time I really enjoyed. Later I said that to someone and they looked at me exactly the way I would now. Because of them, I got the book back off my shelf, opened it up, shut it again.

It’s not a very good book.

But here’s a guy attempting to put his career and its single most notable moment into a shape, a narrative that ultimately showed him in the best light. I don’t care whether he succeeded or whether it was even possible, I do care that we could try the same thing.

Why not? You are CEO of your work, I am of mine, let’s write our autobiographies in such a way that we make sense and most importantly that our successes get better coverage than our failures.

I’m not sure I’m really advocating that we write 100,000-word books about us, I have limits to my ego – says the man with two blogs, a speaking tour and previously a podcast – but that bit with the successes and failures could be big.

I forget things I do that are good. If I pull something off then no matter how hard it was for me, it’s done now so I know it’s easy for everybody else and I undervalue my own effort. But I just went a bit bombastic for a second, wrote about my towering glory and that time only last night when I successfully roasted a chicken at 1am, I could feel good about myself.

Possibly also silly, but.

Here’s that Sculley interview if you’re sitting comfortably.