Love letters are a time-honored tradition. They allow us to express deep feelings, the sentiments that we aren’t necessarily able to articulate aloud. They also serve as a written record of romance. Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning’s letters to each other chronicle the flowering of their love from his initial admiration of her work to their eventual (and, by Victorian standards, scandalous) marriage.
Brett McKay of The Art of Manliness sums up the timeless appeal of the love letter: “[They] have special properties that no modern form of communication can duplicate. It’s something tangible that we touch and hold and then pass to another to touch and hold. And they are preserved and cherished in a way that text messages or email never will be.”
While a heartfelt letter can be a fond keepsake of a courtship or a bittersweet remembrance of a lost love, a poorly written one can make you cringe. Here’s how not to write a love letter.
Don’t type it. The first, simplest rule of writing a love letter is that it should be handwritten. Beyond the content, the magic of a letter is that it was once held in your hands. This is particularly meaningful if there’s distance between you, but even if you see each other every day, it’s important that you write it with a good, old-fashioned pen and paper. Don’t believe me? Check out this gallery of handwritten love letters from famous writers.
Don’t binge on baby talk. Times may have changed since Emily Post penned her Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home in 1922, but her advice on love letters remains sound. “If you are engaged, of course you should write love letters—the most beautiful that you can—but don’t write baby-talk and other sillinesses that would make you feel idiotic if the letter were to fall into strange hands.”
Murmured endearments in the heat of passion are one thing, but when you write them down...well, snookums, they sound silly.
Don’t go writing dirty, either. On the flipside of infantilizing baby talk is the down and dirty stuff that’s better saved for the bedroom—or, if you must, a more ephemeral email or text message. James Joyce’s famously NSFW love letters to Nora Barnacle are the perfect example: even though they were never meant for anyone else’s eyes, the highlights are available on Buzzfeed. The, er, colorful expression of lust are equal parts hilarious and horrifying.
Don’t be needy. Alain De Botton advised would-be writers never to “let desire turn into neediness. By all means suggest that life would be immeasurably enhanced by the possibility of capturing the attention of the beloved, but don’t suggest that this means one couldn’t survive without them. It’s a very fine line between devotion and plain desperation.”
Your letter should be about the recipient. When you make it about you, about your love and your needs, you defeat the purpose of a love letter. Write without demanding or even expecting a particular response.
Don’t get fancy. Unless you’re Elizabeth Barrett Browning, leave the verse to the professionals. “Be yourself,” advises Cyndi Calhoun. “If you’re not a poet normally, now may not be the best time to try to eke out some poetic prose. Either find a poem that helps express your thoughts, or just write as you normally would.”
Writing with a thesaurus in hand is a bad idea, too; lexicographer Henry Watson Fowler coined the term “elegant variation” in 1926 to describe writers who try too hard to come up with elaborate synonyms for everyday words. Praising your lover’s “depthless cerulean orbs” is more than little pretentious.
Don’t forget to proofread. A love letter riddled with typos and misspellings not only takes the reader out of the moment, but it also telegraphs the writer’s lack of care and attention. As writer Jeanette Winterson said, “Write well. This is not an email or a tweet.”
You don’t have to be an English major to master good grammar. If proofreading isn’t your strong suit, an automated proofreader is a better wingman than Cupid.
Have you ever sent—or received—a love letter? Share your story in the comments.