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What Makes a Great Love Letter?

These are the 4 elements of the best romantic notes.

In an age of texts, chat and Snapchat, love letters may seem like relics of the past. If so, they're wonderful relics. While cleaning out bins of old papers and files at my parents’ home recently, I rediscovered some of these treasured mementos from yesteryear, including the first love letter I ever received.

It was from a boy named Jesse, who was in my 3rd grade class. On a piece of wide-ruled paper, in a just neat enough scrawl, Jesse told me how special I was, invited me to the movies (his mom could drive us) and pragmatically asked me to circle Yes or No to the question: Do you like me? Accompanying the note was a hologram sticker of a smiling puppy dog with the phrase: All I need is love.

I never circled Yes in the note, but at nine years old, Jesse became my first love—and we actually ended up rekindling (and re-extinguishing) our relationship over the better part of a decade. When I think of him now (20 years later!), I still can’t help but feel that weak-in-the-knees feeling I experienced the first time I read that letter.

Which is why I began to wonder: What makes a good lover letter?

I think there are four things:

1. They show commitment. We use the phrase one true love for a reason: We believe it.

In a study, researcher Donelson Forsyth developed a dozen varieties of love letters and asked both men and women to evaluate them. The results showed that letters promising commitment left readers feeling the most loved and in love.

One participant said such a letter gave her a sense of “being absolutely secure and comfortable.”

And James Joyce was not shy about declaring his everlasting commitment to his wife in the letter excerpted below:

You are my only love. You have me completely in your power. I know and feel that if I am to write anything fine and noble in the future I shall do so only by listening at the doors of your heart .... I love you truly and deeply, Nora .... I would like to go through life side by side with you, telling you more and more until we grew to be one being together until the hour should come for us to die .... Let me love you in my own way. Let me have your heart always close to mine to hear every throb of my life, every sorrow, every joy.

2. They take risks. In our daily lives, we spend a lot of our time trying to look good and be cool. But in love letters, it's being earnest and vulnerable that counts. In fact, writer and philosopher Alain de Boton writes, "A good love letter should be embarrassing if it were discovered by an enemy.”

You can see an example of this risk-taking in this excerpt from a letter English poet Vita Sackville-West wrote to Virginia Woolf:

So this letter is really just a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this—But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that.

3. They give the right compliment. A nice compliment is nice to hear, but if it's the thing everyone says about you, it’s not especially special. Just the right compliment, on the other hand, is the one that makes you stand out from everyone else. It applies to you, and only you.

In a love letter to Marlene Dietrich, Ernest Hemingway expressed such a one-and-only sentiment:

I can’t say how every time I ever put my arms around you I felt that I was home.

Each of us has only one place we call home; to Hemingway (at that moment), it was Dietrich.

4. They don’t say everything. Sometimes, you can’t quite articulate what you want to say. Sometimes there are just no words. And sometimes, saying nothing is exactly the right thing to say.

If you’ve ever seen the seminal early-1990s teen drama My So-Called Life, you’ll recall the pivotal moment when Angela discovers that it was boy-next-door Brian, not her mysterious crush Jordan, who wrote her this love letter. It’s full of teenage angst, but it also sums up how some things are just better left unsaid:

I even hate this letter because it’s not the whole truth. Because the whole truth is so much more than a letter can say.

Tell me about your favorite love letter (either received or written) in the comments below. Did it work?

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