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Unless you’re Sappho, Al Green, or another of history’s great love poets, it can be difficult to express on a page the love that you have for your partner. And doing so in the limited space afforded by the note that accompanies your holiday gift to them is even harder. That’s why we asked Joe Oestreich, an English professor, author of four books, and husband of 21 years, for his advice in crafting a love note for your partner this holiday season. Here is his expert advice.
1. Buy the blank card.
A love note doesn’t need to come on a card. Some of the most meaningful notes have been written on bar napkins or the backside of grocery lists. But when your note is connected to a gift, spring for the card — one that’s blank on the inside. She wants to hear from you, not from the professional message writers. Trouble is, in the stationery aisle, the blanks can be hard to find. They’re usually hidden behind a card featuring Garfield holding a wine glass and a tray of lasagna. So here’s an idea:Go to an actual stationery shop (there are some good ones online) and invest in a box of nicely weighted note cards. Do you need a whole box? Probably, because over the course of your relationship, you’re going to write more than one note, right?
2. Handwritten, obviously.
Definitely don’t type it up and print it out. Your handwriting, whatever it looks like, is a distinctly personal touch — its own kind of signature. So don’t worry if you’re not a calligraphist. Make the penmanship yours. But make it the neatest version of yours. Overly sloppy handwriting is like an out-of-range radio station. You don’t want her fighting the static to tune in your chicken scratch. Here’s a lifehack: Have at least two copies of the card handy (another reason to buy a whole box). That way, if you misspell a word or discover you’ve chosen a pen that doesn’t dry fast enough to keep the side of your palm from streaking the ink, you can crumple it up and start over. In love note writing, take as many mulligans as you need.
3. Pick a pen that’s worthy of the occasion.
It’s a scientific fact that you write more profoundly when using a pen that feels solid and significant in your hand. So don’t use that corporate giveaway from your last convention in Kansas City. If the pen has a phone number running along its flank, it’s not up to this job. Ultimately, you’ve got to use the right pen for the paper you’ve chosen. I love liquid gels, but they don’t work well on slick cards. And you shouldn’t use a pencil unless you meet one of these two conditions: 1. You’re under twelve. 2. You’re an architect. How about crayons? Only if you’re constructing a grand metaphor about how your love for her is like burnt sienna. In that case, proudly go Crayola.
4. Don’t quote other writers.
You’re not Shakespeare, Keats, or Yeats. Neither am I. But that’s okay. You don’t have to be. If what you write is honest, true, and in your voice, it will read like Shakespeare to her. Quoting someone else screams “I got desperate, so I Googled best quotes about love.” Google is guaranteed to return results that sound like they should be cross-stitched to pillows. In fact, I just searched best quotes about love. The top result is from Victor Hugo: “Life is the flower for which love is the honey.” That’s a fine sentiment, and I’m sure his wife and her pillows were thrilled with it. You don’t have to do better than Hugo; you have to do different.
5. Don’t worry about flowery language.
You’re signing this thing, so it has to sound like you. You at your most thoughtful, your most generous. No need to consult a thesaurus or stretch for language that sounds overly poetic. Hint: If you’ve started with “My dearest beloved,” you’ve gone off the rails — unless you met her at a Renaissance Faire. In which case, proceedeth as thou hath planned.
6. It’s about her, not you.
Don’t make the mistake of writing about how she makes you feel, how she’s the best thing that ever happened to you. Focus on her. What you admire about her. What’s unique, inspirational, quirky about her. If you’ve written the word “me” more than once or twice, you’re discussing the wrong person. In a pinch, go with “us” and “our” instead of “me” and “my.”
7. Don’t get stuck focusing on her looks.
Instead, mention an unexpected detail you find especially attractive: the underside of her wrist or the small of her back. And remember Chaucer’s old saw, “Beauty is as beauty does.” (Oops. I just quoted another writer. Oh, well. Rules, broken, etc.) The point is: don’t tell her she’s beautiful. Wait. Check that. Do tell her she’s beautiful. But she’s not just beautiful. Concentrate on something beautiful she’s done.
8. Be specific and write more about less.
Stay away from vague, abstract words like “amazing,” “wonderful,” and “unbelievable.” She’s all of those things, I know, but pick one. And then delight her with a tangible example. How does her amazingness manifest itself in your real lives together? The inside panel of one greeting card is way too small a space to contain her whole amazing being or your whole wonderful relationship. So don’t even try to capture it all. Keep the note brief but impactful. How? Write deeply into one moment rather than skimming the surface of many.
9. When in doubt, tell a story.
Preferably one that involves a shared memory. Try starting with “I’ll never forget that time when you. . .” or “As you once said to me . . .” Focus on a moment she might not expect you to remember, an instance when she thought you were looking the other way. This is an opportunity to show her that you’ve noticed, that you’ve been listening, that you’ve already been giving her the best gift you can give anyone these days: the gift of your attention.
10. Love notes can come any day of the year.
A surprise note means even more than one written for a formal occasion. Drop a card into her lunch box. Slip it into her briefcase. Stick a post-it to her laptop screen. You don’t have to wait for a holiday. Do it on a regular Tuesday.
11. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
I know this all seems overwhelming. But as I’ve heard said about thank you notes, the only bad love note is the one left unsent. So don’t worry too much. Accept that you’ll never be able to capture everything, and you’ll never be able to say it exactly right. The good news is that you’ll get many more chances. After all, Valentine’s is right around the corner. So is Tuesday.
The perfect note deserves the perfect gift. Take our quiz to reveal which piece of Pandora jewelry best fits your partner’s personality.
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