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Greeting Card Writers Are Nameless Deadline Poets

August 14, 1987|DAVID STREITFELD | The Washington Post

The weather was bad in Kansas City, Mo., earlier this month: Humidity lay like a tarp over the heartland. People wandered about in a sweaty haze, dreaming of thunderstorms, vacations at Lake of the Ozarks, and cold beer at Royals' games.

All except for one woman, who sat in a building on the edge of downtown and considered a different season as she wrote:

"It is a time of beauty, as the earth lies sleeping beneath a snowy blanket. . . A time of joy, as the world unites once again in a celebration of love. It is a time to reach out to one another in the spirit that is Christmas . . . "

Never mind the heat. Linda Lee Elrod, a senior writer for Hallmark Cards, was spending her time in the holiday spirit, and visions of sugarplums were dancing in her head.

Some external factors helped--Handel's "Messiah" on her office headphones, books of Christmas scenes, pictures of her sisters and parents--but, as she wrote dozens of different cards in three weeks, it was mainly a matter of really wanting to get into the mood.

"You've got to remember, we have vivid imaginations in this business," she says. "You have to feel it. Otherwise, it's just going to be 'Have a Merry Christmas, blah blah blah.' I can pretty well put myself in any state of mind."

Like an Actress

And she does. "It's like an actress playing a role--'OK, your dog just died, that's your motivation.' If I'm writing a juvenile Christmas card, I think like a little kid -- 'Oh God, it's Christmas Eve! What's Santa going to bring me?' It sounds a little crazy, but it works."

As a full-time greeting card writer, Elrod is one of a select group of craftspersons. At a rough estimate, there are no more than 150 full-timers in the country, along with several hundred more who work free-lance. Hallmark, which controls an estimated 40% of the card market, employs 41 full-time writers.

Greeting cards comprise almost half of all household-to-household mail, a situation that puts their writers in an influential position. A mass-produced object written by nameless individuals is used to make 7.6 billion private (or even intimate) statements a year.

At Hallmark, the writers don't have too many set guidelines or quotas. Editors will make specific requests, but are also interested in whatever a writer spontaneously comes up with.

"You know how you brainstorm with people? I'll brainstorm with myself," says Elrod, 37. "If I'm writing a romantic card, I'll type out a bunch of phrases. But if I get a requisition that just doesn't move me--'a thank you to a grandmother; don't use "I"; try and include a compliment; could be for a gift or could just be thanks for being there; two lines; prose'--there's a lot of temptation just to say what's been said a million times before."

Her "big deal mentally" is "to never bland out. I do it like a puzzle. It's like playing a game with myself--am I gonna win or lose? I know if I've won, because I say, 'This is a better piece of copy than the requisition was."'

In retrospect, it seems natural that Elrod ended up at Hallmark, where she's worked for about five years. A late bloomer, she dropped out of college, became a secretary, was a reporter in the K.C. commodity markets ("they kept editing out all my good adjectives"). She had written poems since she was young, and friends suggested she apply at Hallmark.

Hallmark, the General Motors of the card business, can afford to develop and encourage a stable of writers. But even for much smaller companies, the writing is crucial.

"The verse is 70%. I don't care how funny the card or how beautiful, if it's got words on it, the words will make or break it," says Tim Conlan, president of the Vienna, Va.-based Capital Ideas.

Avant-Garde Cards

Capital, which started up early last year, specializes in avant-garde cards. Their hardest task is discovering good writers. "The problem is not just finding someone who's creative, clever or humorous, but who can write in such a way that you not only enjoy the card yourself, but want to send it to someone else," says Conlan.

"It's much, much tougher to do than you think," says Conlan. "To do it well takes a real talent. A hundred letters a week come in with verse ideas, and I think we have yet to take our first one." (Hallmark, meanwhile, gets 25,000 unsolicited submissions a year, including cards. Less than 1% are accepted, and "only a very small portion" of those are cards, the company says.)

Much of the in-house writing at Capital is done by Bill Abbott, the vice president of production and creative design. He's done about 30 cards in the last year. Each one is a process that takes him through several stages. It's a bit like doing a photo shoot.

"Generally I try to get myself a picture of several different people I know personally, and put together a conglomerate of what I perceive their likes in a card to be," he says. Then he zeroes in on "the sending situation"--whether it's a birthday, get well, friendship or love card.

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