Illustration by Emily Traynor.
When Stephanie Payne Preece and Patrick Preece of Dover began planning their wedding, they both knew without any discussion that they would be writing their own vows. “Steph and I are each pretty unique,” says Patrick. “We very much wanted the wedding we wanted, rather than the one you’re supposed to have.”
Adds Stephanie, “I wanted [Patrick] to understand from my perspective all the reasons that I love him, and I didn’t want it to be the normal, out-of-the-book, this is what everybody says. I wanted him to know from my heart, in front of the people who meant the most to us, why I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him.”
For many couples, deciding to write your own wedding vows is the easy part. But actually getting the words on paper can lead to brain freeze. What do you want to say? And what’s the best way to say it? No one can tell you what’s in your heart—and that’s where your vows should come from—but we can give you some guidelines for the writing process.
Step 1. Talk to your officiant.
Some religious denominations are more traditional than others, and there may be words that must be included in your vows. Others may not allow you to write your own vows at all, as is the case with the Roman Catholic Church, according to Monsignor Hans Brouwers of St. Katharine of Siena Parish in Wayne, Pa.
On the other hand, the Rev. Metty Messick, a chaplain at Christiana Care Health System in Wilmington, encourages couples to write their own vows. “A wedding should be an expression of who the couple is, so if writing their own vows … helps to convey their love for the other person, then I want to support that,” she says.
If you are able to use your own vows in your ceremony, your officiant will likely be able to give you some broad stroke ideas of what vows traditionally consist of as well as some samples of what others have done.
Step 2. Seek inspiration.
Think about other weddings and other meaningful ceremonies you’ve witnessed. Search the Internet. Read traditional vows from your own and other religions. What appeals to you and your fiancé and seems to suit your style? Maybe you actually want to use excerpts from other vows, or maybe they will just provide a starting point for you.
Sandy Taccone and Wendy Scott of Newark did a considerable amount of online research, looking at structure, tone and components both of traditional and same-sex wedding vows. Taccone recommends that couples “see what other people have done with vows, because there are some amazingly written inspirational wedding vows out there that people have shared, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with taking that and making them your own, customizing it to how you feel or the finer points that you want to express.”
Step 3. Decide upon tone, format and other details.
Once you have some idea of what you want your vows to look like, decide how to proceed. Do you want to write together and say the same vows to each other, as Taccone and Scott did? Do you want to work together but write separate vows? Do you want the vows to be a surprise on your wedding day?
Nicole Bailey of Elevee Events in Rehoboth Beach, a wedding planner and sometime officiant, notes that you want your vows to be serious, but with “light moments,” too, because this is, after all, a celebration. For the same reason, don’t bring up unhappy times in your lives, she adds. Keep the focus positive and on your future together.
Step 4. Brainstorm.
Now that you have a general idea of what you want, how do you go about getting words on paper? When Bailey is working with couples writing their own vows, she gives them a list of 25 personal questions to answer, in the hopes that it will provide inspiration. She encourages them to think about what their thoughts were the first time they met, and when they knew this was the person they wanted to spend their life with.
Messick suggests that couples think about their history as a couple and consider if there are important stories, moments or events that encapsulate their relationship, sort of a theme to their personal love story. If so, they might use that theme in their vows.
Step 5. Be sure to include essential components of wedding vows.
A vow is by definition a promise, so you’ll want to ensure that your vows, whatever else they contain, also include the promises that you are making to your spouse.
Lara Zeises Deloza and her husband, Joe Deloza, of Wilmington wrote their vows separately, but they both followed the same format: a list of six reasons why each loved the other followed by a list of six promises and ending with the same sentence: “Thank you for taking me as I am, for loving me the way that you do and for making this commitment to our marriage today and every day hereafter.”
Their promises ranged from the solemn—Lara’s promise to Joe “to be careful with your heart”—to the seemingly simple—Joe’s promise to make Lara tea every day. Even that simple tea-making ritual continues to have special meaning for the couple as a constant reminder of their vows.
Step 6. Write a draft.
Whatever you do, don’t procrastinate. It’s easy to get wrapped up in other reception details, but remember that the exchange of vows is the reason for the wedding.
Throughout the year that the Preeces were planning their wedding, Stephanie jotted down notes about events and personality traits of Patrick’s that reminded her why she loved him. When she sat down to write the vows, she drew on those notes, picking and choosing and “piecing them together into what was cohesive and intelligible.”
Getting those first words down on paper can be the hardest part, but remember that your first draft is just a starting point.
Step 7. Revise and refine.
Remember how your high-school English teacher always tried to get you to revise your work? She was right. Go back over what you’ve written. Have you avoided clichés? Does it sound like your voice? Does it feel as if the words truly express your feelings for your partner and the commitment you are making to each other?
If the vows you’ve written don’t feel right, don’t be afraid to rewrite major sections—or the whole thing. That’s exactly what Patrick Preece did the night before his wedding. “The original was a great speech,” he says. “But it wasn’t mine. I wanted this to be a testament to [Stephanie] from my heart.” So he tossed what he had and started all over again.
Step 8. Practice saying your vows.
Read your vows aloud and time them. One to three minutes each is about right. Be sure to share with your partner how long your vows are so that his or her vows will be about the same length. Fine tune as necessary as you read your vows aloud.
Say your vows aloud again and again so you are very familiar with them. You don’t want to be stumbling over your words during the ceremony.
Step 9. Give your officiant a copy.
Be sure to give your officiant a copy of the vows ahead of time so that he or she can hand them to you during the ceremony and you can read them (trying to memorize them will likely be too stressful). Or consider repeating the vows after your officiant reads them. The latter strategy frees you up to hold hands with your spouse and look into his or her eyes while speaking your vows.
Writing your own vows can be daunting, but remember why you’re doing it. Says Taccone, “In the end, we were really happy with the loving meaning and spiritual intent woven into the words we spoke to one another.”