Before you get carried away and start spilling your heart out on the page, do your homework. Check with your officiant to make sure that it’s kosher to pen your own promise — some religions do not allow for variation on traditional vows. Even if you’ve gotten the go-ahead, it is imperative that you pass vows by him or her once you’ve finished. He or she may raise faith-based questions or objections to your wording, or contribute a thought or quote that might make your vows even more emotive.
— Go solo? Decide whether you will take on writing the vows together or alone. If you go solo, you may want to take turns running them by each other before the big day. Make sure that you both have approximately the same length of text so that one person isn’t rambling on for five minutes while the other says ten words. If you don’t mind hiding a stash of tissue behind the altar, saving your tribute for the ceremony can often be extremely moving. If you choose to make it a joint task, pen a mutual vow that you both take. Either way, run your finished product by a trustworthy friend or family member with polished editing skills just to make sure.
— Talk it out: A “vow-writing date” is a great way to get started. Over a romantic dinner or breakfast in bed, discuss what marriage means to you. With pen in hand, dish with your fiance about important events and turning points in your relationship: how you met, when you fell in love, when and how you said, “I love you,” any breakups (and make-ups) you’ve endured. List the qualities you most admire in your loved one, and characteristics that he/she brings out in you. Recognize your goals and don’t be afraid to confront the challenges you envision. Most importantly, take this alone time to laugh, cry, and divulge what marrying really means to you. You might not use everything you come up with, but it will be one of the most romantic dates you’ve had yet.
Do you have a scrapbook of love letters and poems, “your” songs, romantic literature, spiritual texts, and your favorite movie lines that capture your feelings? Borrow freely from what you’ve gathered, and have fun picking and choosing just the right words — even if they’re someone else’s. When it comes to the heat of passion, plagiarism is not a crime. One hint: Try to avoid cliches — use unique phrases to express your truly unique love.
— Movie moments: Park yourself with a tub of popcorn in front of the American Movie Classics network and take note of lines from timeless classics such as Casablanca, Pal Joey, and An American in Paris.
— Sentimental songs: Throw on some songsters of love for some unforgettable lyrics to add to your collection. Check out Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. For you free-loving spirits, try Richie Havens, Paul Simon, Janis Joplin, James Taylor, or Carole King. For more contemporary staples, opt for Elton John, Sting, Billy Joel, or Sade. Head to your local sheet-music dealer and comb through volumes of lyrics by classic composers such as Cole Porter, Ira and George Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
— Wonderful words: Go back and take a look at your favorite authors’ works — including your childhood favorites like Winnie the Pooh. His musings may be simple, but they are always sentimental: “If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live without you.” Read up on your religion’s traditional passages and incorporate them into your own promise, or use them as a catalyst to get your juices flowing.
HOW TO DO IT
— Make your vows funny and warm, but not cryptic or embarrassing: they should reflect the magnitude of the commitment you are about to make. Your vows should not drag on and on. Be concise and get to the core of what marrying that person means to you. Eliminate any redundancies or extra words. Save some words for the toast (and the honeymoon night, of course). Remember, less is oftentimes more.
— Run-through: Yes, your vows are for you and your honey — but they’re also for an audience, so be sure they sound good when spoken. Practice out loud, alone or with a trusted friend. Also watch out for tongue twisters and unruly sentences (you may run out of breath — you’ll be nervous enough as it is). Make your final edits and consider copying your words onto stationery or a beautiful card, so that you and your sweetie will have it in print for years to come.
— Bring a copy: If you think you can memorize your vows, go for it! If you’re likely to draw a blank, we’re giving you permission to cheat: Have a copy ready to read from or have the officiant read them for you to repeat. Tip: You probably won’t want to pull out a sheet of paper from the corset of your gown or jacket pocket, so assign your maid of honor and/or best man the duty of holding the vows until the moment arrives.
— Plan ahead: When all is said and done, your vows are the most important and meaningful aspect of your wedding. Don’t wait until the last minute to get started. Set aside one to two months to work on them and have the final version ready at least two days before the wedding. Make your promise as beautiful and unique as the love that you are celebrating. Speak now, or you may have to forever hold your peace.