The importance of the written word on greetings cards is often overshadowed by the visual element, but getting this aspect right can make all the difference to whether a card sells or not. Lesley McLean, a freelance editor and writer, who has over 14 years experience working in the card industry, has kindly agreed to share her experiences and wisdom with the Creative Card Collective blog. In this post from our “Know Your Onions” series, Lesley shares why words are so important …where to find inspiration …how to get your creative juices flowing … as well as giving some useful advice on how to get published.
Lesley, please can you tell us about your background & writing career and how you began writing for greeting cards?
No one ever sat down and said, “I’m going to be a greetings card writer when I grow up,” …well, not anyone I know anyway, and I certainly didn’t. But I did want to write and so I started out as a journalist, then moved on to be a Government communications specialist.
It doesn’t seem to connect, does it?! But every job I did involved writing, editing, proofreading, and creativity. And that’s where cards came in. I’d had enough Government red tape (it tends to knock the creativity out of you in the end), so I took a break. The first job I saw advertised that involved writing was with Hallmark as an editor. I thought, ‘that sounds fun,’ went for it, got it ..and you know what, it was a lot of fun.
I worked my way up over 15 years until the end of last year, when I decided to strike out on my own. Now I write cards on a freelance basis, as well as doing other writing and editing work. I have some arty-crafty side hustles going on too, mainly punch needle, and watercolour & pen illustration. It keeps me fresh being able to break off from one to the other.
Why are words so important on greeting cards?
The old greetings card saying goes, “Design attracts, editorial sells,” and that’s because no matter how great it looks, if the words aren’t right, the consumer isn’t going to buy it.
Who is buying it? Who are they sending it to? Why are they sending it? It seems so obvious, but you’d be surprised the number of cards I’ve seen where these have been forgotten and, if they get as far as print, they sit on the shelves unsold.
Do you write for all genres of card writing, verse, humour etc.? Where do you get your inspiration?
I can write all types of sentiment and in lots of different formats and voices, but my speciality is humour. I started working on mainly male product and part of that was sourcing suitable funny stuff. After a while, my confidence grew and I started to write for specific topics. It tickled me that I was being paid for writing monkey butt jokes (among other things).
Not everyone can write humour – you’ve either naturally got it or you haven’t (I don’t mean that to sound big-headed – it’s just like you’ve either got a mathematical leaning or not). If you do lean that way, the skill can be developed and there are lots of different ‘recipes’ for humour writing you can learn along the way.
Being funny as a job can be hard sometimes though. Some days you don’t ‘feel funny’, but you’ve still got a job to do. So you need some inspiration from somewhere…
It can come from so many different places. We were lucky at Hallmark to have access to lots of information from research and trends. That could trigger lots of ideas. Working for yourself you can keep up to date through websites and the news.
Plus, I keep notes on bits of paper, coasters, my phone… Inspiration comes from lots of places but best of all is day-to-day life. I jot stuff down that appeals to me when I hear it. Humour works best when it’s relevant to people. They like it because they see themselves in it.
I immerse myself in comedy too. The more you understand how jokes work, the easier it becomes to write them. Comedy podcasts are great for getting you into the humour zone. They switch my brain over to the right side for writing.
What tips would you give for getting the creative ideas flowing?
Just get straight into it. Don’t be frightened of that blank page…it’s an opportunity waiting to happen! Make yourself a drink and get settled in.
Dump any ideas related to the job down onto paper, just to get started. No matter how crappy your idea seems, get it down on that paper. Sometimes we’re our own worst critics and we end up throwing away little gems. Try going with it. Nothing ventured…
Bounce off other people if you can. Sometimes a little idea that’s going nowhere for you, can be just the inspiration someone else needs. Between you, you might just have the best idea ever!
Whatever you do, don’t sit at your desk fretting. Some of my best ideas have come when I’ve been cooking, or driving, or walking the dog. Or drinking coffee, or wine. It all helps to make your brain operate in a different way (especially the wine!).
Which form of writing do you find the most difficult, or do they all come naturally to you?
There are some things that are harder to write than others, but it’s not about the form so much, it’s about the subject matter. Sometimes you’ll have things going on in your own life that make it hard for you to tackle certain themes. An extreme example would be if someone close to you had just died and you had to write a series of sympathy cards. Or your relationship had broken down and you were working on Valentine’s Day. Eventually these things can be drawn on as experience that make the writing richer, but at the time, well, it’s not so easy. Card writers are usually full of empathy and that’s what makes them so good at their jobs.
Finally, if a budding greeting card writer is reading this, what advice would you give them on how to get their work published.
Hello budding greeting card writer! Start by doing your research. Have a good look at what’s selling out there in shops and online. Get acquainted with the product and how it differs for different retailers.
Don’t be frightened of trying something new. There are lots of great selling cards out there you can learn from, but if you don’t take the risk of trying new ideas, companies will never keep up with the next generation of card buyers. Be brave!
Just don’t be too clever. It’s a card – if people don’t connect with it pretty much straight away, they won’t buy it. There has to be a reason to send. People will send it because they know that’s someone’s sense of humour, or it says what they couldn’t write themselves. They’re making an emotional connection.
Most card companies have a website that includes information on where to send submissions. It’s an open invitation. Sometimes they want more of what they’re doing, just with a fresh take, but mostly it’s the new and different they want. So send your ideas – nothing ventured, nothing gained!
And don’t let rejections put you off, keep trying. Writing is subjective and some day the right piece will land on the right desk at the right time, and you’re off!
With many thanks to Lesley for sharing her wisdom, please let me know in the comments if you found this post helpful or interesting.
As well as being an experienced writer, editor and proofreader, Lesley runs writing workshops and training sessions. If you would like to find out more, you can contact Lesley on
- Feature image “How to Cook” is another example of Lesley’s copywriting, card published by Hallmark Cards