Writing a Successful Personals Ad

So you’ve finally decided to place a personal ad.Can’t believe you waited so long. Just describe yourself, the personyou want to meet and — Shazam! Couple of phone calls, cafe, Italianrestaurant, and you’ll be on your way.

Easier than finding mustard at a hot dogconvention. Maybe you should go ahead and order the invitations now.Have them leave a blank so that, later, you can fill in the name ofthat other person you really need to make the wedding day extraspecial — your spouse.

Whoa! We may have gotten ahead of ourselves here.Before you start picking out fonts and French ways of cuttingvegetables, there’s one small matter — writing the ad.

There are two things you want to accomplish with apersonal ad: 1) get people to respond to the ad and 2) keep peoplefrom responding to the ad. The challenge is to get the right peoplein each category.

Start with “deal breakers.” For many, this meansan age range. Some people also indicate a religion or degree ofobservance. Religious Jews might say they want to meet someone whoregularly attends Friday services, or at least doesn’t think shul is what a5-year-old calls kindergarten.

So far, so good. But once we move past categoriessuch as age and religion, it gets dicey. The problem: Most of thereally important things don’t rule anyone out. For instance, it’sessential that your date be intelligent and have a good sense ofhumor. But putting these requirements in your ad won’t screen out alot of folks. That’s because few people, when asked to describethemselves, will say, “I’m dumber than a head of lettuce and wouldn’tknow a joke if it jumped out of my soup and sang a show tune.”

It’s tempting to think of writing a personal ad asif it were ordering ice cream. Cup or cone? Sugar or wafer? Sprinklesor nuts?

Yet there are big differences between a date andan ice cream. An ice cream will never gripe about your wardrobe, but,on the other hand, you can’t take it with you to the movies. Andplacing a personal ad is gutsy, while placing an ad for an ice creamis just dumb.

But the biggest difference is that everyone canagree on the traits of an ice cream. But people are more complicated.Everyone thinks he’s attractive, smart and funny, but we all knowlots of people who ain’t. You do the math.

This is one of the personals’ biggest problems. Wecould call it subjective self-appraisal. Nah. More like: “Who are youkidding?”

One quick glance at the personals should dispelany concerns about people today suffering from low self-esteem. Thetypical woman placing an ad is gorgeous and brilliant, with a heartthe size of Los Angeles. Think Michelle Pfeiffer with a Ph.D. inAstrophysics.

Meanwhile, the men are astonishingly successfuland athletic ex-models with summer homes in Crete and Bali. ThinkJames Bond with his own consulting business.

Maybe to save space, personals should include astatement that, unless otherwise indicated, all ad writers areattractive, smart and generally terrific. Then the occasional candidwriter could opt out — “Note: Elevator doesn’t go to the top floor.And if you walk up, the lights are on dim.”

So why don’t we all agree to leave out thestandard glowing adjectives?

It’s also best to avoid listing interests that arenot, well, distinguishing.

In short, if your ad looks like this: “Attractive,intelligent, funny professional, enjoys movies, beaches, sunsets,walks and conversation,” you are basically saying: “Vertebrate mammalwith opposable thumbs seeks same.” Or, to put it another way, “Ican’t think of a single thing that separates me from every otherhuman being on the planet.”

The best approach: Show, not tell. If you’rehysterical, wacky or brilliant, say something to prove it. Why shouldanyone take your word for it?

Also, be specific. Say what kinds of movies youlike, which outdoor activities you enjoy, and exactly where the giantstatue in you honor donated by the United Nations is located.

While details provide a better picture, I stillhave to wonder how much sense it makes to pick a date based on thefact that she rollerblades. In the end, I think maybe the best thingis to save a lot of ink and say what we really mean: “Superman seeksWonder Woman.” OK, we could also throw in age and religion.

So, to take an example, I might try: “SJ Superman,32, ISO NS Wonder Woman (astrophysics degree).”

Stephen A. Simon is a Washington, D.C.-basedwriter.