A Parallel Universe (And One Reason All This Matters)

We almost didn’t hire him, but we were truly in a bind.

He was a smart, personable, eager young man, Todd was, with all the requisite qualifications to teach at a two year college.  But Myeera, the department chair, had deep reservations.

“Look at his application materials,” she moaned.

Todd’s cover letter was three sentences long, undated.  It opened with:  Hiring professionals!

It boasted three sentences–one a comma splice–that told why part-time teaching would be great for HIM.  It did not mention how he would help the college.

He typed his name after the paragraph and did not sign the letter.  Over three-fourths of the sheet was blank white space (and that’s three-fourths of a page of missed opportunity.)

His resume rambled for two and a half pages of hard-to-follow information.  Bulleted lists competed with paragraphs of narrative, and nowhere was there any sense of parallelism. We shuffled and searched to locate work experience and education. Those categories were there, but hard, hard, hard to find.

Myeera, who is kind but thoroughly honest, told Todd the truth.  “We’re going to offer you this literature class,” she said, “but I’m dismayed by the quality of your application materials.  It makes me question your writing expertise.  And English teachers should be able to write.”

Todd was a little abashed and a little insulted, I could tell, but he accepted the class.  A few weeks into the semester he came in to tell me he was really enjoying teaching detective fiction to a class of 22 people ranging in age from 16 to 62.  He felt he’d found a good match, in college teaching, for his skills and desires and training, but what Myeera had said at the interview wouldn’t go away.

He had been through the department curriculum, and he noticed we offer a course in business and technical writing.  He wondered if he could borrow a textbook and a syllabus.

I happened to have both in my office.  Todd took them away with him, and that term, he taught himself the material.  The third or fourth unit deals with job application materials, and he applied himself assiduously.  In mid-October, he came in with a new letter of interest, a new resume.

They were beautifully done.  I scanned them and emailed copies to Myeera.

“You must have been desperate to staff my class,” Todd said.  “I am embarrassed to have submitted such lousy documents. I get it now; I understand exactly what Myeera meant.”

Todd has become a trusted colleague; he now teaches both literature and writing classes, and, while his methods are engaging, his standards are way, way high.  “I don’t want,” he says, “my students to lose a job because they don’t understand the importance of presenting themselves well in writing.”

Todd is right.  A person can be gifted, engaging, intelligent, eager…but if those things don’t come across in writing, that person can be a victim of lost chances.  Right or wrong, good or bad, people judge us on the quality of our written work.  Mistakes and clumsy wording undermine our authority. It’s not just a cranky English teacher thing:  writing fluidly establishes, for our readers, just why they should listen to us.

Parallelism refers to the making of lists, or the creating of series, with consistent entries. Here’s an example of the kind of parallelism Todd originally flubbed in his job documents.  (I have to read a lot of resumes, and this is a pretty common practice.)

Resumés usually follow a format similar to this:

Name and contact information attractively displayed  at the top of the page.
Perhaps an objective follows. (There’s some debate about the necessity of this…)
Then, quite often, the author’s work experience is displayed.  (Generally, education follows experience, but that order, too, can change if needed–if the applicant has little work experience, but lots of schooling, for instance.)

In the work experience section, each position should be followed by a short, bulleted list detailing the major duties performed.  Often, that list will look something like this:

Deli manager, Bill’s Supermarket (2011-2012)
-in charge of twelve people
-I was responsible for opening every morning from Saturday through Wednesday
-sliced meat, displayed salads and desserts
-getting cleanup done well was my responsibility
-workers would refer all customers problems to me

The list isn’t parallel because each item doesn’t begin in the same way.  We see independent clauses, a phrase, and fragments.

A parallel way of creating this list would be to start each item with an action verb, as follows.

Deli Manager, Bill’s Supermarket, (2011-2012)
-open five mornings per week
-oversee twelve employees
-resolve customer issues
-perform/oversee all food processing functions
-insure deli was consistently sanitary

That’s neater, tighter, and easier to read.

Parallelism problems can rear their nasty little heads in everyday writing, too, when series are involved. Consider…

She was going to college, a single mother, and had a full-time job. 

Again, each item is presented in a slightly different format.  If we make them all match, it’s just more pleasing and smoother.

She attended college, raised her son without a partner, and worked full-time.  (Echoing the resume format, each item starts with an action verb.)

OR–one could write…

She was a college student, a single mom, and a full-time factory worker.

This time, each item in the series is a noun phrase.

Wielding parallelism tells our readers we are thoughtful and dexterous writers.  It is one more step to establishing our writer’s authority. It also makes for a more pleasing flow–one of those things that the reader might not notice, but that lends polish and enjoyment to reading our words.

I had the opportunity to observe Todd’s freshman comp class not long ago, and I left with my cranky old English teacher’s heart singing.  One of the students asked Todd if he wasn’t being just the least bit picky.  Picky? said Todd.  Do you know, I almost didn’t get this job because my cover letter was so poorly written?  Sometimes your writing is the only thing a person knows about you.  Don’t you want that something to be outstanding?

He delivered that little lecture with a smile and a flourish, and the student shook her head, smiled back, and got to work editing her rough draft. I gave Todd a thumb’s up and slipped out the door.  Ah, I thought, another convert, spreading the doctrine of good writing.

Sometimes, life can just be darned good.

Happy blogging, my friends!


#grammar and usage