Q: I am periodically asked to write letters of recommendation for former students or colleagues. I’m generally happy to do this and pleased if they offer some direction about skills or experience they want me to emphasize.

Often they ask to proofread the letter, and I’m fine with them correcting a typo or asking me to tighten up sentence structure. Increasingly, however, the critiques of my draft letter include requests for specific phrases. I’m not sure how to say, “Sorry, Mo, but I don’t actually think you have leadership skills.”

How can I politely convey that I will only provide the letter if it’s in my own words? — Pittsburgh

A: Even if you don’t believe a hijacking attempt demonstrates leadership skills, your students’ and colleagues’ efforts to forcibly steer your recommendations in the direction of their choosing are, at the very least, indicative of proactive styles of problem-solving.

That being said, someone who needs to borrow $50 doesn’t get to choose the bills. I’m slightly concerned that applicants ask to proofread your letters “often.” This is either a sign that you lack basic letter-writing skills (which could explain why the only people who solicit your endorsement are immoral ne’er-do-wells with no flair for leadership) or a trick to ensure applicants can collaborate with you on their own compliments.

Assuming your email to Work Friend is indicative of your usual style (and was not proofread by someone seeking your recommendation), you are a neat and clear writer whose prose does not call out for extensive rewrites. Either problem can be solved with the same solution: asking a reasonably intelligent acquaintance to give your letters a quick once-over.


Of course, it’s ideal if your letter features airtight sentence structure and suggests to recipients that its subject has earned the admiration of someone with a sound knowledge of modern grammar and spelling conventions. I once asked an authority figure for a letter of recommendation that — when received one day before the application deadline — contained so many errors, I feared submitting it would call into question my own judgment. So I did what any considerate, rational person would do: burst into the office of someone else at the same institution, begged them to write me a letter with no notice, apologized profusely for not having asked them in the first place and swore them to absolute secrecy, thereby preserving the dignity of the original letter writer, and dusting intrigue like powdered sugar over everyone’s plain lives.

When someone asks you to write a letter of recommendation, that person is seeking your approval. Accept only thanks. (Not edits.)

Work Friend is a cheeky New York Times advice column to help with careers, money and the sometimes grim, sometimes hilarious maze that is the contemporary office, from a rotating cast of advice-givers. Email questions to workfriend@nytimes.com.