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    Writing in Someone Else’s Shoes

    Thursday, June 19, 2014

    Creative Commons "new shoe" photo by Joel Dueck on Flickr

    "[Y]ou never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.…"

    —Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

    In “How to Write Your Own Recommendation Without Getting in Trouble,” Cory Weinberg, of BloombergBusinessweek, reports that MIT’s Sloan School of Management is now requiring applicants to write “a professional letter of recommendation on behalf of yourself.” This is, apparently, an increasingly common trend at both schools and businesses, likely in part because instructors and supervisors have difficulty fitting such writing into their schedules.

    It is also an excellent opportunity for students and employees to step outside themselves and take a critical look at how their performance meets with another person’s needs. In the business world, of course, both this sort of personal review and “ghost writing” are common tasks. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are easy.

    To understand the problem, let’s start by looking at communication as a triangle:

    The better a writer knows the subject, the less distance exists between the two, and the easier it is to write:

    Similarly, the closer the writer feels to the reader, the easier it is to write:

    To write “a professional letter of recommendation on behalf of yourself” however, requires a sort of mental gymnastics, placing the writer in the role of “subject,” viewed at arm’s length from the perspective of a different person, a supposed writer, with yet another person as the final reader.

    Psychologists say that sort of self-reflective distance isn’t even possible for most people until their mid-twenties.

    A few weeks ago, my youngest daughter called, facing a similar situation. A professor had agreed to provide a letter of recommendation for a program she was applying for, but asked her to give him a draft to work from. She wasn’t sure where to start, so I volunteered to draft something for her.

    “Give me a bullet list of details to work from,” I said, “including how the professor knows you, your grades in his courses, and whatever else you think he might include.” She set to work, her bullet list in effect a first draft. I then composed a letter, “role-playing” the part of a college professor recommending a promising young student. She passed my draft along to him, and he took excerpts from it to plug into what turned out to be an application form.

    The trick to writing for someone else this way, as Harper Lee reveals, is to “stand in his [or her] shoes and walk around in them.” Stepping out of your own for a bit gives a whole new perspective. And that’s a very good thing.

    —Lester Smith