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The Riley Guide

The Riley Guide: Resumes & Cover Letters

Preparing a Perfect Plain Text Resume

Today's job search requires some different resume formats than the traditional printout. You've probably prepared your resume in Microsoft Word format, which is great for attaching to emails. But what if a prospective employer requests your resume in the body of an email, or you've got to submit it through a text-only form on a job board website? This is where a plain text resume comes in handy. When done right, it closely imitates the look (bullet points, etc.) of your fully formatted resume, but in a format that can be copy-pasted into any text form. Read on to find out how to make this conversion smoothly.

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The Perfect Plain Text Resume for Posting

The first steps in converting your existing resume to plain text are simply to open it in Microsoft Word (or whatever word-processing program you use), choose "Save As..." from the "File" menu, and select "plain text," "Notepad" or the equivalent option in your own program. If you get a pop-up window asking about file conversion, just click "OK" without changing any settings.

Next, close out of your word-processing program and open the plain text file you've just created. Now it's time to start cleaning up. If your resume has two or more pages and includes any page numbering or references to "next page," delete those. Some resume experts recommend replacing formerly bold and italicized words with ALL CAPS, but this can come across as tacky - especially in this era where typing in all caps equals shouting.

The formatting on your bullet points won't translate from Word into plain text...

After these basic clean-up operations, tackle your bullet points. The formatting on these won't translate into plain text, so you'll need to manually format each bullet-pointed list, and replace each bullet point with a similar symbol. Some popular choices are dashes (-), plus signs (+), asterisks (*) and greater-than signs (>). Tap your Space Bar (not your Tab key) to put a single space between each symbol and the word after it.

Quotation marks are the next thing to clean up. Your formatted document will have automatically turned your quotation marks in open-quotes and close-quotes ("smart quotes"), which may translate to your plain text editor, but which tend to appear as weird chains of other symbols in emails and on the web. So run over your plain text document's quotation marks with a fine-tooth comb, making sure they're each replaced with a straight quote (").

Oddball formatting problems can be fixed in a variety of ways...

After this, all that's left is to check through your plain text document a final time, looking for any oddball formatting problems like improper line breaks, scrambled text, columns that got turned into paragraphs and so on. You'll have to tackle each of these problems in its own way as you find it - usually by deleting or adding spaces or line breaks until the text looks similar to the way it did in your word-processor's format. You can make sure you haven't missed anything by resizing your plain text editor's window as large as possible, to see what the text looks like without Word Wrap (in case your plain text editor has that feature turned on).

Preparing Your Resume for Email

Although most of today's email services are pretty robust at handling formatting issues, some still have problems with long lines, and wrap the text in odd places, disrupting the formatting you've so carefully set up. The text-only forms on some job boards also have this problem - and it's better not to take the risk that your prospective employer may be using an email service or message viewer that has this issue. Thus, it's worth your while to take a few minutes to prepare an email-and-message version of your plain text resume.

One simple way to format your plain text resume for email is to narrow its margins in Word...

The basic idea here is to limit each line to no more than 65 characters. One of the simplest ways to accomplish this is to narrow the margins in Microsoft Word. To do this, open the plain text version of your resume from within Word (rather than from within your plain text editor). Select the entire document's text and change the font to Courier, 12 pt. Then click Page Layout in your toolbar, click on Margins, and select Custom Margins at the bottom of the pull-down menu. A Page Setup window will pop up. In that window, set the left margin at one inch and the right margin at 1.75 inch. This will reduce all your lines to 65 characters. Now you can save your resume as plain text with line breaks.

Once you've got your plain text resume all formatted for email and messaging, it's easy to send through the any email provider or job site of your choice. Before you send a plain text version, though, take care to read the entire job posting you're responding to - some employers specifically want your resume in Microsoft Word format, some want an attached plain text document, and some want plain text pasted into the body of an email or message. But thanks to the time you've spent preparing versions in Word, plain text and 65-character lines, you're all set to pick the right version and fire off a message to your future employer.

Helpful links

Plain Text Resumes: How to Make Them a Little Less Ugly -- Tips and examples for creating an eye-catching resume within the limits of plain text.

ASCII Resumes: Learn How to COnvert Your File -- Step-by-step guide to cleaning up your resume as you convert it to plain text.

How to Create a Plain Text Resume -- Another detailed guide to plain text resumes, from the "For Dummies" site.