How to write a good CV; the importance of readability

Updated: Apr 7

How are CVs read?


My CV Guide recently conducted a survey asking recruitment, HR and business professionals about how they actually read a CV. It is a simple and valuable question, but one that is perhaps not often considered in too much depth.


This article focuses on eye movement during reading and is the third in a series of articles influenced by the findings of the survey. It follows on from How is a CV actually read? Scrutinisers, Skimmers and Jumpers and CVs are read on screens. What can a CV writer learn from research-based UX?


We read different things in different ways


The way in which we read bodies of text is perhaps more variable than we realise.


Think of how you would read a novel relaxing by a pool on holiday, compared to a newspaper article whilst commuting on a train or a promotional pamphlet handed to you by somebody in the street. What about scrolling through social media posts on your phone compared to studying academic articles on a computer screen?


Some we would read slowly and take our time to process every detail, others we would skim over to get the gist before deciding whether to read on or not, whilst others still we would scan rapidly for specific information or with a particular objective in mind.


What we are reading and the context in which we are reading it will influence how our eye moves across the text, how much of it we actually look at and how we process the information from it.


This is key concept to writing a good CV. How is it going to be read? There is no point in writing a book of your entire professional memoirs if the reader is just looking to scan the text quickly for pertinent information. A CV needs to reflect that.


We probably read fewer words than we realise


When asked if they ever read EVERY word of EVERY line of a CV, 15% of respondents to the My CV Guide survey answered never and a further 30% said rarely. Even for the 20% who responded that they always did, actually reading every word is perhaps more of a concerted effort than we realise.


As long ago as the late 19th Century, Louis Emile Javal, a French ophthalmologist reported that eyes do not move continuously along a line of text when reading, but make short, rapid movements (referred to as saccades) between short stops (fixations). Modern studies using eye tracking technology confirms these findings and has allowed for further understanding of how we actually process the information we are reading. [1]


During the time that the eye is fixated, we are processing the information we are looking at where as in a saccade we are not. The distance the eye moves for each saccade can be between 1 and 20 characters during which vision is suppressed so that no new information is being processed. The area that we can truly see text clearly is surprisingly small. It is about the width of 4 to 5 characters of text, or the size of your thumbnail! Our eye moving 20 characters at a time would therefore leave many letters and whole words, not being seen clearly and so these are unconsciously processed in different ways [2].


Regression back to material already read can also occur, to help “fill in the blank” of the saccade. All of this is happening within thousandths or a second and so is not necessarily noticeable to us, but read a couple of sentences trying to focus on every single character and you will notice how different it feels to how you would normally read.


There is considerable variability in fixations and saccades between readers but also for the same person reading a single passage of text. The main difference between reading something quickly and reading it slowly is that slower reading will be characterised by longer average fixation durations, shorter saccades, and more regressions [3]. In other words, when you read quickly, you skip more characters, have longer periods where you aren’t processing information, shorter periods when you are and you go back over what you have already read less.


Remember the advice at school to always read the exam question carefully? That was because missing a single word could completely change what the question was asking. Most of us probably did this by slowing down and making sure we processed every word to make sure we had it right before starting on our answer.


It is a deliberate and concerted effort that not all readers of a CV will undertake, particularly if they have high volumes of CVs to work through or are pressed for time. Reading too quickly can change the meaning of a sentence if key words are missed or not processed accurately and you want to protect your CV against that happening.


How does this help you write a good CV?


Taking into account how our eye moves when reading re-affirms some key concepts to writing a really good CV. In essence, make the content easy to read and process quickly.


Plain language - The efficiency with which the text can be read and processed supersedes any perceived benefit of using more complex language. Is what you have written really easy to understand? Is it clear without having to be re-read? Don’t be concerned that simplifying the language will make you sound less intellectual. In fact more information will be processed and understood which will actually increase perceptions of intelligence and credibility.


Punchy, to the point sentences – Make sure every word adds value. If a reader is moving from fixation to fixation point without seeing the value or benefit of what they are reading they will lose interest quickly and probably start scanning quicker and quicker in search of something of interest. Read a sentence back. Does it add meaningful information of value to the reader? If not, remove it. If you are keeping it, does every word add something to the sentence? Remove any that you could do without. Shorter punchier sentences that follow logical and familiar structure will also lend themselves to a reader filling in the blank of a saccade more easily and accurately.


Relevant content – The content should be tailored and user driven. What will the reader be looking for within a CV? That is the information you should include and very little, if anything else. You can’t possibly put in every detail of everything that you have ever done professionally or that represents you personally, and you don’t need to. As the reader processes the information in your CV they have a clear objective in mind. They want to decide whether you offer them a solution to a requirement they have or not. That is what they will be looking for when they read so provide them with content that allows them to make that judgement.


Recognised terminology - Think beyond key words and SEO as being an automated, computerised or bot led process that you don’t fully understand and so shy away from. Consider it from the reading perspective of the eye rapidly scanning across text. Familiar words and recognised language will catch the eye and create a fixation point that will be processed by the reader. Translate or rephrase if needed to make sure that you are using the language or terms that will be most widely recognised within your professional field. Niche terminology or internal descriptors that wouldn’t be used outside of your previous companies will not catch the eye of the reader in the same way that more recognisable language or phraseology would.


So in conclusion, is your CV easy to read? Is the information and detail you are providing within it easy to process and understand? Review it with the above pointers in mind each time you submit it. This will help you communicate as much relevant information as possible to the reader which is fundamentally the whole purpose of a really good CV.

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References

[1] Eye Movements During Reading". Pitt.edu. Retrieved 14 April 2014

[2] Rayner, K.; Foorman, B.; Perfetti, C.; Pesetsky, D. & Seidenberg, M. (2001). How psychological science informs the teaching of reading. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 2(2): 31–74.

[3] Rayner, K.; Slattery, Timothy J; Belanger, Nathalie N. (2010). Eye movements, the perceptual span, and reading speed. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 17(6): 834–39.

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