Simon Whaley chats to one of Hallmark’s writers to explore writing for the greetings card market.
The UK might be the second biggest greetings card market in the world, with a value of around £1.5 billion, but we Brits send more greetings cards per person than any other nation. In 2020, we sent 835 million cards. That’s a lot of cards. It’s also a lot of words inside those cards.
As writers, we’re good with words. Poets, in particular, may just have the right way with those words to produce a verse or statement that captures the thought, message, or sentiment that a greetings card needs to convey. So how easy is it to break into the greetings card market, and could it prove a useful income stream for our writing business?
Melvina Young is a senior writer at Hallmark Cards in the USA, the oldest and largest greetings card manufacturer in America. With an academic writing background, Melvina has a master’s degree in African-American studies and teaches women’s studies and black history at the University of Wisconsin.
‘I came to Hallmark because, as I researched other jobs, it was clear that I could keep making a good difference in the world through writing,’ she explains. ‘I still get to help people make those important connections, but on a more intimate level.’
That’s the power of a greetings card. It connects two or more people, emotionally, through words and sometimes images.
‘I hadn’t really thought of myself as a creative person before,’ Melvina continues, ‘but I have always been a deeply empathetic person who could write well, especially in capturing emotional experiences. I was able to bring my academic skill set—listening, learning, researching, writing, refining, and crafting—into this deeply creative, curious, innovative, intellectual, and emotionally intelligent space.’
For Melvina, writing greeting card messages is all about connecting people.
‘Every day I get to think about how human connection looks, how it works, how it acts, how it shows up in our lives, how it enables us to carry each other through, and how it makes life a wondrous thing to live.’
‘When a child is born, I get to help someone say, “Congratulations on one of the most beautiful things that will ever happen in your life.” When someone marries, I get to help someone say, “You chose this person and now you’ll build something beautiful and unbreakable together.” When life is hard, I get to help someone say, “This is hard. But I see you. I’m with you.” And when life delivers the heartache that it inevitably must, when the loss is immeasurable and unmatched, I get to write for the uniqueness of each person’s grief.’
There are several ways in which Hallmark develops its greetings card ideas. Occasionally, their editorial partners stipulate what they require, and other times, there are collaborative sessions with other writers.
‘Sometimes,’ Melvina explains, ‘the ideas come from me. I’m constantly people-and-culture watching, researching; learning about relationships; and figuring out how the big things we go through—the pandemic, for instance—show up in people’s emotional lives. I get to ask myself what that experience is like and what it might leave someone needing emotionally. What’s important to me is that I always start with the real person and the authentic experience.’
It’s possible to write greeting card messages as a freelance, and just like any writing market, thought and research will pay dividends.
‘The first thing I would say,’ suggests Melvina, ‘is to learn your market. For instance, do you want to write for the UK or for the US market? Do you want to write for a bigger company like Hallmark, or a smaller, niche company?’
‘The next part sounds elementary, but do your research,’ she continues. ‘See what companies are already doing, investigate what their writers are doing well. Try your hand at emulating that. Then look for where you might improve on what they do or offer them something new.’
Here in the UK, the Greeting Card Association is the official trade body of the sector and represents over 400 members, including the big names like Hallmark, Ling Design, Noel Tatt, and Woodmansterne. It’s a great starting point for exploring the market, getting website addresses, and contact details.
Many greetings card publishers include submission guidelines on their websites. Lookout for Artist Submissions, where both visual and written requirements are available.
A great way of following Melvina’s advice to see what companies are doing is to visit one of the trade shows that take place in London, Birmingham or Harrogate, throughout the year. It’s the perfect opportunity to learn current market trends and potentially make contact with businesses.
Part of researching the market involves reading the many verses and comments within cards, and then analysing how and why they work. Melvina recommends thinking about the essence of the idea behind why the card is being sent in the first place.
‘A card tells the story of the relationship between the giver and receiver. The words not only have to convey what the giver really wants to say, but they have to make the recipient feel seen and known, too. In fact, the recipient needs to feel like the card has been written just for them. The trick of it is the writing must make thousands of recipients feel like they’re the only one.’
‘In other words, when I write a romantic love card, it has to feel authentic enough that when someone gives it to their partner, the recipient feels like the card has been written just for them and the words are actually coming from the giver. Easy, right? And that writing has to make the ten thousand other recipients who get the same card feel the same way.’
Melvina offers this insight about writing cards. ‘A lot of what you write will feel general, but must still be specific enough to make the card feel real and relevant to a lot of people. So, I suggest that serious writers in this format focus on understanding relationships; sharpen your empathetic skills; work on your craft; learn to write at different levels from simply said to elegantly stated. Pull from the people and culture around you so that your writing is authentic as possible.’
Like all great writing, what reads as being quite simple is, in fact, hard work. A common misconception Melvina often comes across is that greetings card verses are cheesy.
‘We often hear people calling a card “cheesy”, when what they really mean underneath is that cards are emotional. Greeting cards help people connect. They support and nourish real relationships. And they can become keepsakes of our sweetest and most important moments with people we love. Emotions are wonderful things but can make people feel uneasy. Some have a hard time expressing emotion. Ironically, that’s what greeting card writers help with!’
‘Think about the last card you chose for your mother,’ Melvina asks. ‘Did she think it was cheesy? Or did she love it? Or the last meaningful message you gave your lover. Did that message matter? The last sympathy card you sent. Did it offer comfort to the person you sent it to?’
‘It’s funny to me that a huge stereotype of greeting card writing is that we write trite or cheesy little verses. But I don’t really write verse much. I’m a much stronger prosaist. My writing can have a lot of rhythm and even some interior rhyme, but I don’t do traditional verse. I go for deep emotional meaning and cultural relevance.’
Every genre of writing is its own skill, and writing for the greeting card market is no different. Even though the message might be simple, there’s a huge skill in choosing the right words and selecting the right place to put them.
As Melvina points out, ‘One of the reasons that greeting card writing can get less respect than other writing gigs is that the writing has to sound like the real language people use in real life to express their feelings. That can make it sound less lofty than other writing and make it appear as though not much work or thought goes into it. But there is a range of greeting card writing. From quite lofty to cards that sound “ordinary” because of the hidden craft of talented writers.’
‘Many of the people I work with are published poets, novelists, children’s book writers, playwrights, and songwriters. They bring that same talent and accomplishment to writing in the greetings card space, to create cards that resonate deeply with the people who trust Hallmark to help them nurture relationships.’
It’s also worth remembering that the greetings card market is vast. It’s not just the key annual events, like Christmas and birthdays, but it’s a wealth of life events, too.
‘We don’t just write one thing as greeting card writers. We write beautiful sentiments from romantic love to celebrating birthdays and holidays. We write humour, from puns to quirky takes to laugh out loud humour. We write for the joy of birth to the sorrow of losing someone in death.’
If you’ve a skill for capturing thoughts and emotions in a clear and succinct way, perhaps the greetings card market could be a useful outlet for your creativity. And who knows? This time next year, people could be buying Christmas cards containing your words because they convey exactly what they wanted to say, but couldn’t put it into words themselves.
Business Directory – Card Directory
Melvina’s Top Tip
‘Think about this job as more than just sitting down and getting a few cute words on the page. Understanding what greeting cards are meant to do and honing your craft is important. Always ask yourself if what you’ve written does the emotional service for the relationship you’re thinking about.’
UK Greetings Card Association: www.greetingcardassociation.org.uk
January and September – Top Drawer (London): https://www.topdrawer.co.uk
February – Spring Fair (Birmingham): https://www.springfair.com
June – Progressive Greetings Live (London): https://www.progressivegreetingslive.com
July – Home and Gift Fair (Harrogate): https://homeandgift.co.uk
September – Autumn Fair (Birmingham): https://www.autumnfair.com