BY TYLER MOSS
When it comes to weddings, writing your own vows has gone from fringe fad to full-fledged trend. And no wonder—as a means of sincere self-expression on the most momentous day of your life, traditional scripts just sell the occasion short by lacking detail, distinctive voice, and acting as a sedative to your great uncle who’s snoozing in the third row.
As least this was the rational proposed to me by my now-wife a couple of months before our wedding last August. The evidence she provided was compelling, and as a writer, how could I not be thrilled by the prospect of turning my skills toward such a special subject? Therein, however, also lied the problem: the pressure. As a writer, there would be a certain expectation that my vows be … well … good. Or at the very least, better than average.
I scoured the Internet looking for advice, and to my surprise, found very few articles that proved useful or gave concrete strategies and suggestions. So instead, I watched the most popular YouTube videos of couples giving their vows, and consulted friends about their likes and dislikes from various ceremonies they’d attended. I shared the facts I’d collected with my fiancé, and we went to work.
On our wedding day, read from leather-bound journals into which we’d handwritten the words, our vows were the hit of the ceremony.
Other writers, I can only assume, will face similar anxiety when it comes to penning such a precious speech. Thus I’d like to share the following seven lessons I learned:
- Avoid Overwrought Metaphor/Simile
This is the easiest trap to fall into for those who go a little overboard in flexing their writerly muscles. Yes, we can see your six-pack, and no, we’re not impressed. Flowery descriptions and florid language—“You are the wind beneath my wings, lifting me up toward the apex of my potential,” or, “Your love fills me like a natural spring brimming with excitement and wonder”—just come across as hokey poetry you might find inscribed on a crocheted wall print at your grandma’s house. Instead, aim for concrete imagery: “When we met at the Red Hot Chile Peppers concert, the first thing I noticed was your eyes, and how they seemed to curl in the corners like paisley.”
- Avoid Cliches
To that end, do your best to skirt around sayings that have become worn from overuse. Which can be difficult, considering the sheer volume of material out there on the subject of love. The trick, of course, is to focus on your experiences with the person you’re marrying. Share a story, such as, “ The first time I knew I loved him was on our second date, when I dropped a dish of freshly baked lasagna on the linoleum, and he put an arm around me and had Jimmy John’s on the phone before I could shed a tear.” Of course, as with anything, every rule has an exception. Take the following, in which clichés are used for comedic effect:
Over the years, many great philosophers have speculated about the nature of love.
Said Aristotle: Love is a soul inhabiting two bodies.
Said John Lennon: Love is the flower you’ve got to let grow.
Said Haddaway: What is Love? Baby, don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me. No more.
- Be Specific
Though noted briefly in the past two points, specificity is of enough significance to deserve a bullet all of its own. It’s the fine details, the anecdotes pulled from the pages of your own personal relationship that will make your vows unique and memorable. Save quotes from Shakespeare or Byron for a Valentine’s Day card, and opt for funny quirks, sappy stories and anything else guaranteed to make your true love smile.
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- Incorporate Humor, But In Balance
When I received my Master’s from Northwestern in 2011, Stephen Colbert was on hand to give the commencement keynote. As you might expect, his comedic remarks gave for a thoroughly entertaining speech, but what really made it memorable was how he administered equal doses of both humor and earnest words of wisdom. Your wedding day is a happy one. Though it’s certainly not for everybody—and you shouldn’t feel the need to force humor if it doesn’t suit your style—don’t be afraid to look for laughs. In terms of trajectory, I’d say your best bet is to kick things off with levity and build up to sincerity. Take the following example, framed as a series of promises:
I promise to give you my unsolicited advice on everything from your grocery shopping techniques to your career—and to forgive you when you choose not to take it.
I promise to watch both the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl with you every year—and I promise to never tell anyone you like the Academy Awards better. Whoops!
I promise to always treat you as my best friend and my equal.
I promise to always work to fix anything that gets broken.
- Know Your Audience
Remember that your vows are not intended as a soliloquy to the audience. Yes, you’re center stage, but all your gathered friends and family should not be your primary focus. What you’re really writing is a message to your partner, albeit one that’s shared publicly and likely memorialized forever in your wedding video. It’s OK to include inside jokes that fly over everyone else’s head, or meaningful references that will only mean something to the two of you. Though your guests may not get it, they’ll simply be happy to see how much the cute couple cares for each other. And who knows, it just might make for a good conversation starter at the reception, when a friend asks for the tale behind that bizarre term of endearment.
- Keep It Short & Sweet
Just because you’re going to write your own vows doesn’t mean you should pen a novel. It will probably be a struggle to remain concise—after all, you’re attempting to capture the entire breadth and depth of your relationship—but you will better hold the crowd’s attention and lend more power to your words by aiming for compression. I suggest you limit yourself to a 350-word maximum. That should be enough space to make your point without it seeming as if you’re droning on.
- Find a Trusted Editor
Before marching blindly into your ceremony, it’s wise to seek out an editor—a close friend or family member—to read through both of your vows. Not necessarily for grammatical errors or word usage, though that’s certainly helpful, but primarily to compare the two speeches and make sure they match in tone. If one person tells jokes up until the last line, and the other is saturated with emotion, the exchange on the altar will be awkward. The editor can also review length and make sure that neither set is noticeably short or long.
The truth is that, at the end of the day, none of these tips are steadfast rules. Your vows will be wonderful no matter what, because it’s your wedding day, and as long as you speak from the heart then the moment will be special regardless. If you’re as obsessive as me, and find little comfort in such blanket assurances, however, then the strategies above can act as an outline, and soon enough you’ll be living your happily ever after.
Tyler Moss is the managing editor of Writer's Digest. Follow him on Twitter @tjmoss11.
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