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Classified Material : Selling yourself in the personals is a tough pitch. But Sharon Huff can help. Her advice? Some creative honesty.


She'd tell you if your new haircut made you look fat. She'd tell you if your tie was crooked, even if you were a total stranger. If you seemed nice enough, she'd probably even straighten it for you. But what Sharon Huff really wants to straighten out is your love life, and she guarantees she can do it.

Huff, 47, is the author and publisher of "20 Tips to a Dynamite Personal Ad," a no-nonsense guide to finding the perfect mate through the personal classified ads.

Perhaps you've scoffed at all those outdoorsy, financially secure SWMs and DBFs casting about for their athletic, emotionally available counterparts.

Huff used to scoff, too.

Then, last year, her 10-year marriage broke up.

"All of a sudden I was on my own again and I had no idea how to meet people," said Huff, a Miami artist and graphic designer.

Huff soon discovered that her hometown newspaper had page after page of classified ads from potential companions.

There was only one problem.

"They were all so pathetic," she said. "It was so sad. This one guy started his ad out with the headline 'Herpes Simplex.' Now, who in the world would start their ad with what has to be their least attractive feature?"

And then there was this gem: "Male, white, 60 years old, 5' 7", 180 lbs., has vasectomy, would like to meet lady with same."

"I thought to myself, 'These people do not know how to advertise,' " Huff said.

At first, Huff would write to the poor slobs she felt sorriest for and offer her advice on how to pep up their presentation. No one wrote back.

"I guess I hurt their feelings," she said. Huff kept on critiquing the ads, quietly, to herself, and "little by little, all these tips came together, and I just sat down one day and wrote them down," she said.

Thus was born "20 Tips," a 10-page pamphlet you could easily read while watching "The Love Connection."

Tip No. 1: Be truthful.

Hmmm. Trouble already. Honesty may be the best policy if you're, say, in the cast of "Baywatch," but what about the rest of us--the debt-ridden, dumpling-shaped, ill-tempered, middle-aged masses?

Fortunately, Tips No. 2 through 20 seem specially designed to spin-control Tip No. 1.

Huff, who describes herself in personal-ad lingo as "tall, bright, blond, fabulous 40s, sparkly, kind and easy to talk to," says you must be honest, "but in your honesty, don't have a false modesty." After all, this is an advertisement, not a tax return.

Instead of "middle-aged," Huff recommends rounding off to the nearest decade ("30-plus"). For "dumpling-shaped," she offers a whole smorgasbord of alternatives ("stately," "large and lovable").

She even puts a spin on poverty ("enjoys life's simple pleasures"), divorce ("single") and bereavement (" 'Widower, single dad' will pull a lot of maternal heartstrings," she writes).

In addition to the tips, you get admonishments ("Please don't say 'no fats, no overweights,' that's hurtful to some readers"), pep talks ("Dare to be outrageous. Have fun!") and needlings ("Guys, why is it so many of you request someone young enough to be your daughter?").

Most of all, Huff stresses the importance of conveying a sense of your personality. In the back of the booklet is an alphabetized checklist of 196 words--from adaptable to zesty --to help you out in this department, if articulate isn't one of your characteristics.

"When you create a well-written ad, you're creating a hopeful fantasy in the mind of your readers," Huff said. "With a few well-chosen words, they can already picture themselves riding bicycles under the oak trees."

When you're looking for love, it's just as important to be able to read the personal ads as write one, Huff said.

"You've got to be able to read between the lines," she said. "A guy that will start his ad out with 'Herpes Simplex'--at least you know he's very honest and very courageous, though maybe not the brightest. At least you know that if he's got something bad to say, he'll say it right out."

Huff sells her booklet for $6.97. And she promises that if you don't "get a date, make a new friend or start a relationship" within six months of following her advice, she'll send your money back.

So far, no one has asked for a refund.

"I had one sweet old lady write to me from Kansas City and tell me that I should put the price on the cover of the booklet," Huff said. "She wrote to me on the back of the refund certificate, so I guess it was working out."

It's working out for Charlie Willis, too. Willis separated from his wife on Valentine's Day this year.

Several months went by before the 47-year-old ex-Marine could even think about dating again. When he came across Huff's book, he decided to give the personal ads a shot.

"I'm no Fabio or nothing. The best I can say for myself is, I've got most of my hair," he said. "I haven't had a date in 14 years, but now I've got all these chicks calling me up."

Willis never wrote an ad for himself, but used Huff's tips about reading between the lines to answer ads placed by single women.

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