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July 16, 2018 | Rome, Italy

The reference letter

By | 2018-04-20T23:27:37+00:00 April 9th, 2018|
Catch your would-be supporter late in the game, but don't say too much.
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’ve been lucky enough to grow up surrounded by adults who’ve always been eager to supply advice on how to move forward in life. They’ve been helpful to a fault, since at times it’s felt like a barrage of information. And so, as I accrue work experiences, I’d like to pay it forward and share advice on what I know. Lately I’ve been getting in touch with people I’ve known over time to see if they’ll act as references. Here than is my Guide To Reaching Out.

1. The Older The Better: You’d think this would be obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people stick to a small circle of peer contacts they’ve stayed in touch with along the way. This is a waste of time. What you really want are people you’ve had no contact for at least three years — for two reasons. First, it lets them know that you really had no interest in staying in touch until you needed them. Second, it makes the relationship you want with them very clear: You want their help in this specific context, period, after which the two of you can go back to being strangers. Clean, surgical, effective.

2. Remind them how you picked up their slack: We’ve all been young and had to do little tasks for superiors (like reading “War and Peace” overnight and writing a detailed and concise summary). But once you move up in the world, you can delegate these annoying chores to underlings. So, it’s very important to remind the person you’re asking for help of all the little things they didn’t do and made you do. It refreshes their memory about your helpfulness. Sample: “If you could please mention how many times I turned your cryptic, no caps, no punctuation emails to me into eloquent ones, I’d really appreciate it.”

3. Explain why you chose them: Directness is very helpful when writing email references. I recommend letting the person who’ll be writing on your behalf know why you picked them. Was it because as much as you didn’t learn a thing from the internship you had with them, they’re the most high-ranking person you know in the industry? Or are they being selected because everyone else you hoped would say “yes” didn’t reply (this isn’t insulting; it actually takes the pressure off)?

4. Deadline pressure yields the best results: Remember how pleased you were when you got an A on that paper you wrote the night before while you were still working some alcohol out of your system? And remember how annoyed you were when you got a B on that paper you took your time with? Right. So, there’s no sense in asking your anointed cheerleader for help months in advance, when you know they’ll keep you in the back of their mind while they think about you. It’s much smarter to use deadline stress as a motivator. That way, they have to whip something up. You’ll also have used up only two weeks of their life and it’ll be a last-minute masterpiece.

Keep that praise coming…

5. Be Vague: You’ll be hard pressed to find a writer who likes being told what to think and say. Which is why, it’s smart to not antagonize your would-be supporter with- unnecessary information. Dance around the details.

Instead of telling them you’re applying for the “Two Hands One Heart Diversity Fellowship For Screenwriting Fall 2018,” keep it vague. You’re applying for a diversity fellowship in the fall, and supply a link. Don’t overwhelm them with details that only undercut the creative process. Let them decide why you’d be a good fit for the program. They may have no clue, but they’re also pros, which is why you chose them: they’ll find a way.

That’s it (aside from suggesting you not let them know how it went: don’t take up any more of their time.) I hope these tips help. Of course, there’s always more to learn, which can be a discouraging. My parting thought is not to wait around for a line you’re not likely to hear, as in: “You’ve learned enough. You’ve refined and honed your skills enough to last a lifetime. You can stop now.”

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