In an e-mail world, expressing love on paper is a rare thing

By Stephen Lynch

Knight Ridder Newspapers

A love letter is like chocolate. When it's good, it's really, really good. And when it's bad ... well, it's still pretty good.

"Men think somehow they're going to do it wrong," says Shannon Donnelly, who writes romance novels. Fat chance. "You can't really mess it up. The only way would be getting too stiff with it."

Yet love letters remain a daunting prospect for many suitors. The page stares back, as blank and intimidating as an interrogator. Compared to the classic poetry, or even "Sleepless in Seattle," everything you write seems trite. Though love letters and chocolate may share that same infallibility, it's hard to be embarrassed by a box of the latter.


But it doesn't matter if it isn't Shakespeare, Donnelly says. Silly will do. Love letters are the most inexpensive and simple of all gifts, and the most effective. "I can't imagine there's anything more romantic," she says.

It's not that lovers have stopped writing each other. It's that so much of that writing is transmitted in tiny electronic packets, popping up on screens and cell phones in ways that approximate English. And though getting an e-mail "I luv you" certainly brightens the day, it lacks tangibility -- it can't carry a hint of perfume or be saved in a shoebox.

We asked for letter-writing advice from Donnelly, a member of the Orange County, Calif., chapter of Romance Writers of America, and Donald Baack, co-author of "How to Write a Love Letter: Putting What's in Your Heart on Paper."

Pick the thing that makes the object of your affection so special to you, Baack says. "The person who you're sending it to should be your inspiration. They should guide your thoughts." A short letter about something specific about that person -- the way they laugh, their love of music -- can mean a lot more than pages of generalities.

"Write like you speak," Donnelly says, and suggests that you can start by talking into a tape recorder. Riff on what you like about the person, what you feel like saying, and then write down the best parts. "Don't try to be too formal."

What are the worst kinds of love letters? "'I think you're really hot,"' Baack says with a laugh. "You also don't want to be disclosing too much too early. 'I wonder what our children will look like' can scare someone away early on." Be cautious with the "l-word," too. "Don't say you love someone until you mean it."

If your mate appreciates your sense of humor, write something light and funny. If you're a romantic, be mushy. Don't try to tailor a love letter to what you think a love letter should sound like. "They like you because you are a certain way," Donnelly says. "If you don't act that way, it will come off as fake."

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