Today I got the opportunity to write a letter of recommendation for a former colleague who is hoping to get a gig as a creative writing instructor on top of his current freelance editing work. In the past few years, I've also been asked to serve as a verbal reference for a few friends and former colleagues, including one who was interviewing with the DEA. (You would not believe the prying questions they asked!) It always makes me a little nervous, but I have developed a bit of a system for doing it right.
First, I sit down and write all the positive words that come to my mind when I think about this person. I think about what that person's strengths are and how those strengths relate to his or her job target (it helps if the candidate can send me a job description or give me some details about the job). Then I weave it all together into three punchy paragraphs loaded with enthusiasm and wholehearted endorsement.
The question naturally follows: What if the person asking for a reference is, shall we say, deficient in some area? If they're bad enough, I think you have to decline writing the letter at all (I haven't had to do this). But if it's a toss-up and you decide to go ahead with it, you can still use the first part of my technique above. Write down words that describe the person's good qualities and steer clear of areas where you know he or she is weak.
The technique also works well for writing recommendations on LinkedIn. You just have to keep it shorter--five sentences max--because nobody has time to read a long recommendation online.
As for how the letter I wrote today turned out? "I think I'm blushing," said the candidate. Yessss!