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It's easy to get caught up in dress shopping and cake tastings, but the words you exchange during the ceremony are some of the most important you'll ever say—they actually change your lives, and you'll be happy you devoted time to thinking about them. You don't have to be a gifted writer to draft meaningful vows (and note that some religions, such as Hinduism and Orthodox Christianity, don't usually have spoken exchanges); you just need to focus on who you are, how you feel, and what you want your marriage to be. Here's how to make them your own.
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Unlike a manicure, which has to happen shortly before the big day, vows can be written well in advance. You can choose readings to round out a traditional exchange or author the entire service yourselves; start early and cross it off your list. Schedule some alone time to write your vows on your own before sharing them with each other. Doing this exercise individually will help each of you reflect without the other's influence, making the result more interesting and personal.
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Go to Your Pro
Speak to your officiant before writing to decide who will say what, and find out if there's anything you must cover to make it official: For instance, is the celebrant going to ask, "Do you take each other in matrimony?" and thus prompt the ring exchange, or is she expecting you to cue up the major moments?
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Be Your (Best) Self
Don't feel the pressure to write something that sounds formal. Speak from your heart and describe your emotions. Then edit the text so that it stands the test of time—consider whether you will feel moved by these words when you look back on them later. "The first step is to excavate your own heart," advises the Rev. Judith Johnson, author of The Wedding Ceremony Planner. She recommends sitting quietly with a blank sheet of paper and asking yourself questions such as, "Why have I chosen this person to be my partner? What do I love most about him or her?" Take time to really think about the answers, and translate them into a vow.
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Find a Format that Inspires You
Who says you have to stick to prose? Go ahead and draft a haiku, another type of poem, a song, or a top 10 list of why you love your spouse.
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Look for Inspiration
Once you have gathered your own thoughts, scour books, poems, and examples of other wedding vows to find the right words that succinctly express what you want to say. Feel free to mix old with new and classic with modern, and incorporate elements of traditional vows into your own. You're not required to write any part of your ceremony. If you feel Shakespeare or Elvis said it best, borrow their words. Or take a line from your parents' vows or their advice to you
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"Focus on what marriage means to you. What are you saying yes to, and what can you promise your partner?" says the Rev. Jeddah Vailakis, an interfaith minister in New York. Reflect on the good times, but consider all of the stumbling blocks in your relationship too. For example, if you're working too much and not making time for each other, you may want to think about what you can pledge to avoid falling into that trap again.
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Keep It Short and Sweet
Remember that your vows are only one part of the ceremony. You may start with a bunch of ideas as you brainstorm, but narrow them down to the one (or two) that mean the most to you. Practice saying them out loud, and aim for your part to be two minutes or less. Decide which parts you would like to read aloud, and what aspects of traditional vows you plan on including.
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Make a date to sit down together to share your notes and read each other's thoughts. Afterward, rather than throwing these first-draft letters away, file them as keepsakes to read on anniversaries.
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Practice and Preserve
Johnson recommends writing your vows—on index cards or a scroll—so you don't have to worry about memorizing them. Make sure to give a copy to your officiant as a backup, and rehearse them with flash cards prior to the wedding day. That way you'll know when to breathe, and you'll be prepared for the parts that may make you tear up. Your vows are yours to have and to hold. Preserve that card or scroll you used in the ceremony in a scrapbook or frame afterward.
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Use Your Words
Once your vows are set, why not bring them into your reception to personalize the party? Print a line on the ribbon that ties your favors, have it piped onto your cake, or spotlight a few words in your décor on banners or posters.