When Bryan and I made the decision to write our own wedding vows, there wasn’t much on the Internet that we could find to point us in a starting direction. So, for the most part, I winged it. I collected every snippet of info I could find on personal vows, then we cut, pasted, wrote, tweaked, and deleted until we had something beautiful and meaningful. Later, I found an APW classic on how to write your own vows and felt pretty bad for Past Lucy, since it was nearly everything she needed to begin with. However, so you don’t have to spend the same (ridiculous) number of hours I did going down the “how to write your wedding own vows” Internet rabbit hole, I’ve expanded and updated our classic how-to, to take you from start to finish.
1. Make the decision (formally). You might have known that you’ve wanted to write your vows for years and years, but maybe your partner does not. Talk to them! Decide together that you definitely want to write them. There is nothing wrong with saying traditional vows. (Meg and David did!) But if you’re going to DIY this, both of you have to be equally committed to this concept. If not, it’s going to show in your vows.
2. Clear it with your officiant. This is an important first step that’s easily forgotten. Catholic, Episcopalian, and Jewish congregations, for example, may require you say all or part of the traditional vows. Often this won’t preclude also saying vows that you wrote, but you’ll want to know what the rules are (and what the religious reasoning for them is) up front. Some officiants may ask to review your vows before the ceremony, so be prepared to have them early if this is the case.
3. Work out the details. Will you write your vows together, or separately? Will you show them to each other beforehand, or will you keep them a secret until the ceremony? Do you want to set a due date for when you need to have your vows written? (Hey, you might laugh, but tell me you don’t know someone who wrote their vows the day of the wedding night before.)
4. Decide on a structure for your vows. Particularly if you’ve decided that you will not see each other’s vows before the ceremony, it’s not a bad idea to make sure both of you are going to be vowing somewhat similar things. You don’t want to be promising to care for someone on their deathbed, while they’re promising to always DVR Grey’s Anatomy for you. Having a structure will also help you keep your word limit, and help your vows match your partner’s. Even though we looked over each other’s vows beforehand, Bryan and I decided to use the structure below as a jumping off point. It gave us a place to start, while still allowing us to write using our own voices.
[Name] I take you to be my [husband/wife/partner]. I will love you unconditionally and without hesitation, for it is your heart that moves me, your spirit that inspires me, your humor that delights me, and your hand I want to hold for all of our days.
I promise __.
I promise __.
I will __.
I will __.
I promise to love, respect, and trust you, and give you the best of myself, for I know that together we will build a life far better than either of us could imagine alone.
Finding a structure that works for you may require some tracking down, but don’t be afraid to mix and match from lots of examples you find.
5. Research, research, research (And reflection!). A good place to start looking at vows is reading traditional ones—from your own religion, if you practice a certain faith, but from others as well. See what strikes a chord with you. You can even incorporate these into what you write, or use them as a jump-off point. Secondly, steal ideas! Borrow freely from poetry, books, even movies or video games. Jot down words and phrases that capture your feelings. The quotes you keep closest to your heart ring true for a reason. Use them. And if you’re someone who keeps a journal, go back and steal from your past self too. You’re not publishing a book, or writing a college essay. Plagiarism is both allowed and encouraged. Truth is, most vows are plagiarism, since we’re hoping to steal some wisdom from people that have gone before us.
Take some time, both separately and together, to think about what you love about each other and what makes your relationship special. Write down the most memorable moments you have shared together, good or bad. Think about the promises you want to make to your partner, and the ones you don’t. For example, I promised that Bryan would always be my family. However, I ain’t promising to obey nobody, so I made sure to keep that kind of language far away from my vows.
6. Write Early, write more than you need. Don’t leave writing your vows until the day before the wedding! Give them the time and thought they deserve, and save your future self the stress of trying to be super thoughtful—most likely, you’ll be in a million different places on the eve of your wedding, which is not the proper brain space. Work on your vows in that pocket of time after you’ve set up all your major vendors and before you have to start thinking about the details. If that’s still too far in advance, then give yourself at least a month, so you can try and write from a more relaxed, not rushed, frame of mind. A few loose deadlines: try to get a first draft together about three weeks before the wedding, and have your final version completed at least two days out. (And note: if you’re eloping or getting married on short notice, just rock it out the day before. It’ll be awesome.)
When you’re starting out, write down everything you can think of. Write more than you could possibly need. In a Google document, buried on my computer, I have at least three pages of memories, experiences, potential promises, and more. It’s far more than I ever needed for vows, but getting it all on paper allowed me to see all my thoughts at once. Eventually, the most important things rose to the surface. Write what you love about your spouse, key memories that define your relationship and why they’re important. Good writing is in the details—the specifics that speak to a universal truth. Apply this to your vows. I focused on a few experiences and memories that I felt really identified our relationship, and put my vows together using that. What are the little things that your partner appreciates that you do? How does that symbolize your overall relationship?
A big thing to think about when you’re writing: is there something that you can work on to build an even better, healthier relationship? I promised Bryan that I would not run from the challenges we might face, because my first instinct is always to flee. It was important that I promise, in front of our community, to work on that.
7. Cut It Down. Aim to have your vows last for about one minute or less per person. Believe me, it’s longer than it sounds. Get at the heart of what marrying this person means to you; pick the most important promises and make them well. If you have more to say, save the more personal thoughts and give your spouse a letter on the morning of the ceremony.
8. Refine your tone, but be yourself. It’s best to decide on your overall tone before you put pen to paper, but make sure to go back over your words and refine towards the tone you want to achieve. Poetic and romantic? Humorous but touching? It’s up to you. The most important thing is that your vows ring true and sound like they’re from your heart. However, while your vows can be lighthearted, they should, in some way, acknowledge the seriousness of the commitment you’re about to make. Use humor in moderation, and remember, at the end of the day, making the audience laugh is not your goal.
Your vows shouldn’t be so personal that they can’t be followed by anyone, so don’t make them overly cryptic, or embarrassing. You’ve invited your family and friends to witness your vows in order to make your bond public, so think about your words from their point of view—your guests want to feel included in that moment, even if they’re not feeling exactly what you’re feeling. That means putting a soft limit on inside jokes, deeply personal anecdotes, obscure nicknames, or code words. Moderation is key. Unless it’s just the two of you eloping, in which case, go crazy.
9. Practice! Memorization is optional, practicing is not. Practice looking up while you read so you can actually look at your partner as you say your vows, and so you can be confident in speaking clearly—it’s common to mumble or speak softly when reading, so practice so your family and friends will hear you. These are words meant to be heard by an audience, so check how they sound when spoken. Read your vows out loud to make sure they flow easily. Watch out for tongue twisters and run on sentences—you don’t want to run out of breath or stumble over your words.
10. At the end of the day, they’re your words. do what you want. Seriously. Your vows don’t even have to sound or read like vows; you could write an essay, a sonnet, or rap them if that’s what is going to mean the most to you. Vows should sound like you, especially when you’re making promises to your partner. On this day of all days, you shouldn’t sound like someone else.