June 16, 2013, by Stephen Mumford
Writing for Some Purpose
I am frequently asked to write references. It’s not my favourite task. While happy to help and recommend the individual concerned – I wouldn’t agree to write it otherwise – the task of reference-writing itself is one I never relish. I love writing in general but there is something about writing for this specific purpose that makes me ambivalent.
The biggest worry, I’ve come to think, is that the candidate’s prospects depend not just on their record of achievement but on how well I craft my recommendation. It isn’t only the subject of the reference that is scrutinised but how persuasive my writing is to the reader and that depends on the extent of my rhetorical skills. In that way, I feel under examination too. Whether I do a good or bad job of weaving a compelling narrative around the applicant’s skills, accomplishments and qualifications will have a big say in the chances of success and I don’t feel this is entirely right.
Some years ago I read Aristotle’s Rhetoric, which includes a section on how a speaker can manipulate the emotions of the audience. Rhetoric has a dubious moral status. We speak of it as an art and a skill to acquire but persuasive writing and speaking may also be thought a mild form of deception or manipulation. Without telling any lies, rhetorical devices can change immeasurably the way the facts are regarded. And sometimes this negative association is acknowledged. An argument can be dismissed as ‘mere rhetoric’.
Creative writing is often considered a pure and innocent endeavour, as we find in poetry, fiction and philosophy. But not all writing is so wonderfully carefree and artistic, performed for its intrinsic value. More frequently, it is for some purpose where writing skills are put to good or bad use. Speeches, reports, news items, and indeed job references all aim to persuade. Nothing is potentially as powerful as the word. The progress of civilisation has been shaped mainly by what we have heard and read for it is words that motivate people to action. A skilled writer or orator, able to sell a vision, is thus among the most powerful of people on Earth. Words matter. If you are their master, please use them responsibly.
The Collected References of Stephen Mumford (10 volumes) will not be available any time soon.