Last week a friend asked me to write a letter of recommendation for her. Although we’ve never worked together, I’ve visited the classroom where she teaches, met students she’s taught, and talked to their parents. On top of that, I’ve known her since she was in junior high! So this was an easy letter to write.
I asked for a list of her accomplishments so that I could work them into my letter – and then I got to work. She was very pleased with my letter and took it to a job interview yesterday.
Last night I ran into her and asked about the interview. She thought she had done well and again thanked me for my letter – and then she added something: “He said he would hire you in a heartbeat.”
Well – ahem! – I’m a good writer. But my point today is that anyone can write a letter as good as mine. Clearly, though – they don’t. So today I want to go over some basic principles for writing that gets your point across and – incidentally – showcases you.
That’s a huge point that bears endless repeating: no matter what topic you choose, ultimately you are always writing about yourself. And you always need to ask how you’re coming across on the page. Arrogant? Pompous? Engaging? Lively? Warm? (I hope the answer is obvious!) My letter was – of course – all about my friend, but I was also putting myself onto that piece of paper.
Here come some rules for any writing task (not just a letter of recommendation):
1. Skip the pompous language and convoluted syntax. I just ran my letter through a readability index. The website used six readability formulas to evaluate the letter. Average score: Grade 8.
2. Use your voice. Here’s how I started my letter: “It’s a pleasure to recommend Jane Doe to you.” I have never in my life written “This is in reference to….” You shouldn’t either.
3. Give details. I mentioned learning centers my friend had set up, projects she had directed, and songs she had composed and taught to her students.
4. Start every paragraph with a sentence introducing the point you’re going to make. (English teachers call this a “topic sentence.”) This is an easy and effective way to make your writing well-organized, coherent, and easy to follow. (In short, you come across as a great writer!)
5. Tell stories. They don’t have to be long. I mentioned going to a dance class with my teacher friend. The mother of two students she’d taught years ago was taking the class – and was thrilled to see her. “Jane” remembered the mother and asked about the two girls by name. Notice all the information packed into that story: she knew her students, cared about them, and had wonderful rapport with their parents. Plus she has an excellent memory!
6. Build to a climax. Here’s how I started my last paragraph: “I am going to close with what I think is “Jane’s” most impressive achievement: [a prestigious award she’d won].
Nothing in this list is complicated or difficult. Trust me – anyone can write well! You just need some guidelines and the time and determination to sit down and do it.