Read the instructions, Captain Awesome.

My fourth-grade teacher gave us a special activity on the afternoon before Parents’ Night.  She handed out a piece of paper with 36 numbered lines of instructions and asked us to complete it in pen.

Line 1: Read all instructions before proceeding.

Line 2: Place your name in the upper-right hand corner of the page.

Line 3: Underline the words “Line 3” twice.

And so on, to the bottom of the page and onto the back side.  Each line gave instructions for a special mark or edit we needed to perform.

Line 36, on the back side of the page, read: “Ignore all previous instructions except for Line 2.”

Turning my paper over, I stared in horror at the dots, squiggles, triangles and lines I’d drawn all over the page.  Like the rest of the class, I had ignored Line 1 and completed each instruction as I came to it … thereby revealing that I had not, in fact, followed instructions.

The teacher informed us that she intended to give our parents the same test at parents’ night, and that she would ask them to leave their papers for us to see in the morning.  She let us hide our papers, the better to perpetrate the same trick on our unsuspecting parental units, and we went home rubbing our little hands with glee.  I looked forward to the evening with special glee, because I had never managed to put one over on my parents before, and I just knew they would fall for it hook, line and sinker.  I waved goodbye as they set off for parents’ night, giving no hint of what was in store.

The following morning, I entered the classroom and raced to my desk.  All around me, classmates snickered as they discovered their parents had fallen for the trick.  Marked-up parental papers floated around the room as the students shared their parents’ failures with audible delight.

Then I saw my own parents’ papers: absolutely pristine, with no marks but their names written neatly in the upper right hand corner.  Out of 25 students – almost 50 parents – mine were the only two who had not failed.

I had never been so disappointed.

The experience did have a positive result, however.  I learned two important lessons.  First: Read all instructions before proceeding (at least in circumstances where not doing so could make you look stupid) and second: my mom and dad were party-poopers of the first order.  (I may have revised that opinion in the years that followed.)

The translation-to-reality here has to do with writing in the real world.  Whether it’s a query letter, a resume, a job application or anything else, the idea I learned in fourth grade still holds.  Read the instructions and follow them completely, even if you think suspect know beyond question that I’m Captain Awesome and the Rules Do Not Apply To ME.  They do apply to you.  In fact, the more you think they don’t apply, the more likely it is that  you’re the one who’s wrong.  He who evaluates the resume makes the rules, and even Captain Awesome has to follow them.

I know that makes me a party-pooper.  The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.