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Written by Andrew Fleming   

Funny Business: Writing Humour for Greeting Cards

by Andrew Fleming

From the predictable to the surreal to the downright silly, humorous greeting cards are becoming ever more diverse and ever more popular. Take a look at the humour section in your local card shop and you will see just how large this market is. If you are a freelance writer with a quirky imagination and a succinct turn of phrase, then it is also a market of which you could realistically claim a share.

First, though, a word about writing traditional verse. Many aspiring and even experienced poets wonder if greeting card publishers might be interested in their work. The fact is, they almost invariably will not be. A poem is the highly personal expression of one mind; a greeting card, on the other hand, must appear to be personal while retaining as wide an appeal as possible. Writing this kind of copy is a specialized task, and one that publishers believe is best done in-house. If you are desperate to write serious copy, then try non-rhyming, "inspirational" pieces, but even these are unlikely to be sold outright.

That's the bad news. The good news is that publishers have an almost insatiable appetite for humorous material, in both prose and verse, and submissions from new writers in this area are often welcomed.

The first thing a prospective writer must do is get to know the market. It pays to visit a number of card shops, as many will only stock products from two or three companies. Look at the different kinds of humorous card available, then look at the back of the cards to find the publisher's name. Make a note of the names you see most often, as these will be your biggest potential customers.

Larger companies tend to divide their output into brands or ranges, each with its own name. A range may have a specific style of humour (e.g. visual, suggestive), or it may cover only certain occasions. Although when submitting material it's not always necessary to state which range it's aimed at, it is vital to have a good knowledge of who is doing what in the greeting card market. To send risqué Valentine's Day jokes to a company that specializes in cute birthday cards would be pointless and unprofessional.

So now you know your market and have a good idea of whom you would like to write for. But how do you go about thinking up your ideas? Writing a really good joke requires a moment of magic that cannot be taught or even fully explained. Nevertheless, there are certain techniques you can use to make that magic more likely to happen.

Your trawl through the shops will have shown you that certain topics keep cropping up again and again: age, sex, insults ("slams," as they are known), and gift gags. Although you should never limit your thinking to tried and tested subjects, they can provide a useful starting point for coming up with your first ideas.

Take age, for example. If you want to write a gag on this theme, you could start by listing all the words and ideas you can think of connected with getting older. Ask yourself questions: What happens when people get older? How do they react to this? What did you feel like on your last birthday? Before long you should have built up a reasonable list, which will form your raw material for constructing gags.

Once you are familiar with your subject, try thinking about it from different angles. Reverse your ideas, exaggerate them, play with words, make yourself wonder "What if...?" These are the same methods writers of any kind of humour use, and further discussion of them can be found in the many books available on writing comedy. But remember the form you are writing for: a card has an outside and an inside, so lends itself naturally to the kind of humour that sets up an idea (on the front of the card) and then reverses expectations (on the inside). Surprise is your most powerful weapon.

During these initial stages, quantity rather the quality is the keyword. Write down everything that comes into your head, even if it seems completely unfunny at the time. It is amazing how a 'bad' idea can suddenly fall into place days later -- or, equally, how dire last night's ribtickler can seem the next morning! With a little practice these methods should provide you with a number of gags on any subject from Cousins to Congratulations.

Now comes the hard part. In greeting cards as much as any field of writing, critical revision and editing will pay dividends. Check thoroughly the obvious things like spelling and grammar, but also read your gags aloud to see if they flow easily. If your gag is split between the outside and the inside of the card, make sure the break occurs in the most effective place, and use the natural rhythm of the words to create emphasis on the funniest part. Remember, it’s not just a matter of saying funny things, but also of saying things funny.

Be ruthless about any gag that is not up to standard. Maybe you can re-word it to make it funnier, but if you do not feel entirely happy with it, put a line through it and move on. It is better to submit ten great gags on their own than mixed up with forty mediocre ones. Nobody likes reading bad jokes -- least of all busy editorial staff -- and to deluge them with material will not help your cause.

Even some brilliantly funny copy may not be suitable for submission. The foremost criterion on which editors will judge your work is "sendability." In other words, a potential buyer has to write his or her name beneath your punchline, so ask yourself if you could really see someone doing this. Perhaps your joke is too rude, too weird, or just inappropriate to the occasion. For example, a good Father's Day gag can be very cheeky, but the same copy would not be appropriate for Mother's Day. A joke may work well on its own terms, but if it is not written for real people in real situations it won't be accepted. When it comes to the layout of your copy, there are no hard and fast rules. The main thing is to make it clear what kind of card the copy is intended for and on which part of the card it should be printed, as in this example:


p. 1: If you woke up on your 50th Birthday feeling a little down, look on the bright side…
p. 3: At least you woke up!

Here "p. 1" and "p. 3" refer to the front and inside right-hand pages of the card where a lead-in and punchline are usually printed. Of course, other types of copy may be printed solely on p. 1 or p. 3, or even on p. 2 or p. 4 in the case of Z-fold cards.

When submitting material, typing each gag onto a separate index card is a good idea, though not essential. What is essential is to include your name and address on every card or sheet, as they do get separated. Generally, it's not necessary to specify illustrations to go with your copy: that's the job of an in-house designer. However, if a joke depends on a particular image, describe it as clearly and briefly as you can. If your graphic skills are anything less than professional, don't think of illustrating it yourself.

Finally, then, whom do you submit your work to? Again, it varies from company to company. It's best to phone to inquire who deals with freelance copy submissions. Addressing your material to a named individual makes you look more professional and can prevent your work sitting unread for weeks on the wrong desk. However, in any case you should not expect a quick reply. Card publishers, like any publisher, are very busy and the amount of unsolicited material they receive is huge.

To sum up, success in writing for greeting cards is a matter of maximizing your chances. Do your research, look for new trends, and try your hand at as many different styles as you can. When you are starting out, it is important to demonstrate your versatility by writing for every type of card, from New Baby to Retirement. If you can find the humour in any situation, you are well on your way to selling your work regularly.

This, however, is not a business in which fortunes are made. Competition is high and rates of pay are not especially generous. But for those with originality and a professional attitude, it is a market that is genuinely open to new writers.


Hallmark Cards
Features, amongst other things, details of employment opportunities at the world's largest card company.

Gibson Greetings
Contains guidelines for prospective freelancers.

Greeting Card Association
Membership details and industry facts.

Many smaller companies also have their own websites. Use the search term "greeting card" to find them.

-- AF
©1999 Andrew Fleming

Andrew Fleming is a freelance writer based in Liverpool, England. A former editor with Hallmark Cards, he now divides his time between comedy scriptwriting and freelancing for a number of British card publishers. He has previously written on the subject of greeting cards for the UK magazine, Writing.

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