One of my more decisive early romantic defeats happened in my late high school/early college girlfriend’s bedroom on Valentine’s Day. I had been off at a different university and we were naively struggling to keep the relationship together. That we managed to last halfway through my sophomore year was a tribute to her hyper-achieving, type-A personality, refusing to abandon a project as hopelessly fucked. Fittingly, it was that same gift for grand planning and execution that was about to expose just how thoroughly out of my league she was.

That afternoon, she laid out her gifts for me, all of which she’d made by hand and which I won’t list in their entirety in the interest of saving space; suffice to say, the centerpiece was probably a coloring book-sized homemade card, made from fixing layer upon layer of multicolored, thick card stock together, with a laced-edge trimming, each of the several pages covered in goddamn gold-lettered calligraphy spelling out an epic poem about how much I meant to her.

I gave her a mix CD. She was very polite about it.

If only I’d known Julie Spira, a dating expert who’s been advising men and women on romantic gestures for more than 20 years. Julie wouldn’t have let me go into that date unarmed. In preparation for this year’s Valentine’s Day, Julie talked Inverse through the dos and don’ts of writing one perfect love letter so you look better than I did.

Romance does not come easily to many of us. How do we express ourselves?

Is this from a man to a woman or a woman to a man?

Uh, man to a woman…

Evergreen or for Valentine’s Day?

Let’s go with evergreen. That sounds more useful.

Basically, since I’ve been recipient of a few, I would say you should always use a pet name if you have one. Dear love of my life, Cutie Pie, Sweetie, whatever the pet name is that should be in the beginning of your love letter. Establish that intimate connection just between the two of you.

How do I do that?

Sometimes it’s good to make a list of reasons you love her. I love you because you make me breakfast in bed in the morning. I love you because you care about my friends. I love you because you’re the sexiest woman on the planet. I love you because you accept me for who I am. I love you because I love creating memories with you. Things like that. And at the end, you always want something along the lines of loving someone because they believe in us together.

So make sure you end on a note that’s about the two of us together instead of just talking about her or me.

Exactly. Always make sure you bring it back to the couple together in the end. If you think this is going to be a person in your life forever, you say that. The word love should definitely be in the sign off. You want it everywhere, but you definitely want it to be the last thing. It really comes down to saying, “My world is better because you are in it.”

Do we stick with the emotions or should we incorporate something about how great the sex is?

You don’t want to overdo the sex stuff. Safe to say if your chemistry is off the charts, I definitely wouldn’t get into anything sexual or graphic because at the end of the day if a couple is having great sex then they already know that. When you’re dealing with a love letter, come from real place of affection instead of “You’re hot in your lacy nightie.” You want to go more for feeling warm and fuzzy. You want to walk away and have your whole body tingle because someone loves you for who you are and they want you in their world.

Let’s get personal. What’s the best love letter you ever got?

Oh, gosh. I got a love letter signed off from someone that said “I love you to the moon and back.” I just thought that was so sweet. “I love you to the moon and back.” It wasn’t cliché to me, it wasn’t something I’d read a lot. I don’t know, I just thought it was this very sweet image.

Is there a bad time to write a love letter?

Don’t write a love letter if you haven’t said “I love you” yet. If you haven’t said those three words, you’re going to spook someone. They say men actually say “I love you” and fall in love faster than women. Doing it for Valentine’s Day is great if you’ve already talked about those feelings, but if you’re casually dating someone you’re going to spook her. If a woman got a letter like that on Valentine’s Day, it could be an uncomfortable feeling. Then the response, at best, is “I’m flattered but I don’t feel that way. Maybe I’ll catch up!”

Where can I look for inspiration to write my love letter? Like, the greatest love letter of all time?

Read some poetry, you know? But really, just be yourself. Sometimes people take poetry and copy-and-paste it. If you’re going to write a love letter and you’re missing that person, what do you say? Men fall in love with women when they’re apart. So think to yourself “What do I miss most about this woman while she’s not with me?” That’s what you put in.