Write Tip: Letters of Recommendation
Written by
Tayari Jones
November 2012
Written by
Tayari Jones
November 2012

Do you have big plans that involve letters of recommendation?  Here are some dos and don'ts.

It’s that time of year.  If you’re like me, you’re setting goals and resolutions for 2013.  And for me, this includes applying for various grants, awards, fellowships, and other opportunities.  No matter where you are on the publishing totem pole, and no matter what you’re applying to, you are going to need letters of recommendation.  I can’t overstate how important these letters are.  So, to that end, the purpose of this post is to provide you with some tips on how to get the strong letters you are going to need to boost your applications.

Why do I even need letters? Shouldn’t my writing be enough?

Well, not really.  The purpose of the letters is to create a narrative to supplement what you have turned in on your application.  For example, if you are applying to graduate school, there is the question of can you write—which is what your writing sample is for.  But there is are other questions like—does this applicant get along with other people?  Does she have the follow through to complete what she starts?  Is she crazy?   The letters are there to fill in the gaps of what the committee can’t see from the resume.

Who should write the letters?

I know that some people believe that the writing biz is “all about who you know.”  And, while, yes, it would probably be a plus to have a letter from a really famous person proclaiming you to the best writer ever, in the world, I don’t recommend that you go get a rec from the most prominent person you have access to.  These are the things you should take into account when soliciting a letter:

How well does this person know you? 

You want to someone that can write a strong letter with lots of details with you and your writing.  As a person who has participated on selection committees, I have seen letters from Very Famous People that are only three or four lines long: “I do not know XYZ candidate very well, but when I taught him at Bread Loaf he was a good writer.”  A letter like that is not going to do anything for you.  It would be much better to have a letter from a lesser known writer who can talk about you with more enthusiasm in more detail.

Do my letters have to be from writers? 

If you don’t know any writers, then obviously, you can’t get letters from writers.  But it will be harder to get attention for the letters, but you have to work with what you have.  If you haven’t yet worked with writers, try and get your letters from people who can speak to your dedication to writing and your character. 

If the application calls for three references, how do I pick the three people?

Keep in mind that different people can write about different aspects of your life.  One person may  testify to your writing skills, and someone else may know more about your gifts of organizations.  Also consider that some writers are known for certain subject matters, or a certain writing style.  If your work dovetails with that person’s specialty, then that’s a perfect fit.  Your goal is to put together a letter writing team that can showcase all the things you’re good at.

What can I do to get good letters?

The main thing you can do is to be a good writer and a good citizen.  The  letters will focus on the quality of your writing and the kind of person you are.  Your letter writer will likely be someone who has observed you in a number of situations, so keep in mind that you are always making an impression.  If you are in school, conduct yourself in class in such a way that the professor will be happy to endorse you for a fellowship or grant.  This is particularly true for MFA students—the letters in your file are as important as your GPA.  There are some professors who write letters for all their students, but they don’t write strong letters for everyone.  Trust me, committees can tell when a letter is written out of obligation.  You have to work hard to earn strong letters. 

The other thing you must do is to request the letters in a professional fashion. 

Think of each letter of recommendation as a gift.  It takes me about an hour and an hour and a half to write a good one, and this time of year, I have many requests on my desk.  You want to make sure that you get the best letter your recommender will write. So here are some tips:

Send supplementary materials. 

Don’t assume your recommend knows you well enough to write you a strong letter.  Send your resume, a description of what you’re applying for, and a writing sample.  It’s also good to include a copy of your statement of purpose that you’re including in the application so the recommender can know what you’re aiming for.

Make it as painless as possible for the recommender. 

I once had a former student who was applying to MFA programs.  He sent me a shiny folder containing all the supplementary materials mentioned above, but also stamps and labels to make it easy for me to send off the applications.  Not only was I pleased by the convenience factor, but I was also impressed by all the time he spent getting his act together.  My letter was influenced by this, since it was clear that he was serious.   His packet reflected the way he conducts himself as a writer—dedicated and committed.  I wrote him a super-strong detailed letter and he got in everywhere he applied.

Finally, my last bit of advice is that you use a dossier service. 

Most universities offer this in the career placement department, but AWP also offers a dossier service.  With this, your recommenders send a letter to the service who keep it on file.  When you need a letter, you tell the service to send it, that way, you don’t have to keep asking people to send additional copies every time you apply for something. Update your letters every couple years or so to reflect your current level of fabulousness.


Good luck!

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