How to Write About Someone Else

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How to Write About Someone Else

When I left teaching high school English, I had a bunch of things from my classroom that I was taking home with me. I had a couple of boxes there in my classroom – literally, two boxes  – both of which needed to make it to the car. It was after 5 o’clock; everyone else was gone. And then one of my favorite students came by to say goodbye. She asked if she could help me carry anything; she took one box, and I took the other; I’m pretty sure the box was as big as she was, but she lugged it to my car, and gave me a hug. You don’t forget stuff like that, ya know?

Any teacher will probably tell you at the end of the day it’s about the students. And it really is. At the end of the day – in this case, literally, the end of the day – it really is about them in that slightly Danny- Tanner-cheesy, but super-real way.

Fast forward eight years. That same student emails me. She’s applying to graduate school, and she wants to know if I can help her with an essay. Yes, of course, no question, I said. And I want to write her a letter of recommendations if she needs it. She takes me up on the offer. Yes, of course, no question, I said.  

So, I’m probably a weirdo when I say that I love to write letters of recommendation. Most humans dread them, and I can’t blame them – it can be boring and tedious like writing a thank you to the relative who gives that same type of gift every year. Thanks for the Christmas ornament; I’ll hang it on my tree every year, and I’ll think of you.

In the case of letters of recommendation, it can sometimes come off like this: I cannot recommend Suzy Q. enough; she’s responsible, reliable, and she really works hard. (Side note: That respective line was the tagline to my 3rd grade Class President speech if it feels oddly specific – it is. Also, I lost.)

We’re bored by letters of recommendation like we’re bored by thank you notes because we don’t take the opportunity to really think about them.

Think about it – you get to tell the world how great someone is; that’s awesome. So, stop acting like it’s a burden.

If that dose of reality wasn’t enough, here are three strategies to make ‘em work for you:

Only write them for people you believe in. It sounds harsh, I know. But it’s true. There are students, colleagues, humans you truly believe will make this world a better place. Write those letters. You’ll be happier, and you’ll write a healthier, fuller recommendation; and the person reading it will know it’s real vs. bullshit. (Did you know that bullshit is easy to detect? It is.)


Anchor the letter with one specific incident/experience/scenario where the person for whom you’re writing just knocked it out of the flippin’ park.  We aren’t talking brain surgery in a pinch here; I’m talking about that time Suzy Q. went out of her way to welcome and onboard a new colleague – when she didn’t have to; or the time John Q. stepped up to the plate when everyone else went to an actual baseball game. Think of that one, respective situation that this person just really showed up.

Quick thinking: Go. What did you think of for them right then in that moment.

Consider what about them you’d like to see more of in the world. It sounds like a super-meta question, but it’s easier to tackle than you realize. Does Suzy Q. handle sales calls better than anyone you’ve seen in the last five years? Do you want John Q. to train every, single new hire on networking skills? What’s that one thing they offer that you’d like to see more of in the world.

So, some quick-fire q’s you might have:

I haven’t seen them in forever – should I write it? So, if he/she comes out of the woodwork and it’s been 10 years – probably not; and that’s only because you can’t reference them in real-time. I can write a recommendation for a student years ago because we stay in touch – and I anchored her letter with how I’ve seen her grow, evolve, transform personally and professionally.

I feel like I describe everyone the same way in a recommendation letter or reference – what do I do?  Welp, first, there’s a thesaurus – so there’s no excuse for actually using the same word. And second – and more importantly – take five or eight minutes to really think about what makes this person super-duper, over-the-top, unique or different. It doesn’t take long for an insight like that – but it does take quiet, space, and you not being on your phone.  

Yeah, but how do I actually write this letter? Okay, so here’s my secret sauce – three paragraphs, each paragraph has probably 3-4 sentences each. First paragraph is how I know him/her – how we met or the context in which we worked together. Second paragraph is the anchor/weight of the letter – what I think is absolutely magic about this person and how I’ve seen him/her step up to the plate. Last paragraph, is why I think the world needs more of Suzy Q. or John Q.

NOW – are you an adult and you think none of this applies to you because you don’t teach or you’re not asked to write letters or recommendation ever? Yeah, right. If you’ve ever been asked to serve as a reference, to write a recommendation for someone else on LinkedIn, to introduce one person to the other either in-person or via email, all of the information above…applies to you, too.

Which proves my favorite point of all time –- we’re always in the business of people.

A special note: The student referenced above was accepted into graduate school at Columbia University; because she’s awesome for all she brings to the table. If I helped to highlight that, great.

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