At holiday time, the greeting-card aisle at the convenience store can get a bit messy as people stand elbow to elbow, rifling through the offerings for the perfect pithy prose.
Each year, Americans buy about $7 billion worth of cards, probably without so much as a thought about the wordsmiths we rely upon to articulate our sentiments.
"When I tell people what I do," says greeting-card writer Terri See, "they often look at me like I'm one of Santa's elves."
But in fact, with up to 2,000 card companies in the United States, the business is a huge market for freelancers. And behind those aspiring card writers, as is the case in so many literary genres, there's a small band of people ready to coach writers through the process of getting their words into print.
Ms. See, a former editor at a major card company, offers workshops that start with the basics: Greeting cards aren't the same as poetry or jokes - they are a "me to you" message. The key word to keep in mind is "sendability" - lingo for a card's potential for broad appeal.
"It's great to get your flair in there and have sparkling language - a company may love it. But they can't buy it if it doesn't relate to many people," she says.
See also covers the business side: how to submit freelance work or what to consider if you want to produce your own line of cards. "Companies really do need the talent," she assures her students. "If a person is a good artist or a good writer, they can make some money if they also have some business sense."
See's workshops at writing conferences usually draw about 50 people. Her business is based in Cincinnati, where she holds smaller, one-day classes.
Although men make an appearance, the students are most often women - as are 80 percent of card buyers, according to the Greeting Card Association. They may be total beginners looking for ways to supplement their income, or experienced writers eager to understand current trends in the market.
"I've created cards on my own, but haven't made a serious attempt at selling to card companies," says Debbie Ridpath Ohi, a nonfiction and children's fiction writer who attended See's workshop at the Surrey Writer's Conference in Vancouver, Canada. "With Terri's advice, I feel much more prepared and motivated."
See also runs CardReps.com, a Web site for card writers and artists. Although technical writing is her professional background, her love of cards started early: "I used to be the girl that hung out in the Hallmark store going, 'Oh isn't that neat?' "
That's an enthusiasm many card writers have in common. But Georgia Glunt represents another motivation: The type of card she wants to send just isn't available in stores. She belongs to an international choral network known as the Sweet Adelines, and she hopes to create cards specifically to encourage and congratulate her fellow singers. She says another woman who took See's class in Cincinnati last month, a social worker, was also dissatisfied with the messages on current cards.
After just a few hours of instruction, Ms. Glunt says she's equipped to make a card for the chorus during this holiday season, and may even submit ideas to a card company, "to see if I have a knack for it."
Companies that accept freelance submissions generally offer $20 to $400 for each one they buy.
At a place like Hallmark, on the other hand, all the cards are created in-house. Jobs are competitive, but there's no predictable path into the field, says Dorothy Colgan, writing-studio director for the card giant in Kansas City, Mo. In the past year, Hallmark has hired a teacher, an entrepreneur, an actress, a nurse, a lawyer, and a salesperson from a card shop.
Applicants fill out a portfolio with "exercises to see what aptitude they have for fresh, original, crafted work that's emotionally driven," Ms. Colgan says. Once writers join the staff, they train for a month and work with a mentor as long as needed.
Those who love creating cards for family and friends sometimes find themselves wondering if that's a good-enough credential to delve into it as a business, says Sandra Miller-Louden, a card- writing teacher in Pittsburgh. She finds these people often do make the best card writers.
Ms. Miller-Louden was home with young children when she made her own early attempts at selling verses, and says she felt totally isolated.
"There was no Internet, and only one book on the subject, which was old and dealt mostly with rhyme." But the editor who saw her first batch of submissions in 1986 encouraged her to keep at it.
A few years later, she had piled up enough rejections, sales, and insights to start offering six-week classes at the Community College of Allegheny County. For the past three years, she's also overseen a self-paced Internet course at WritersCollege.com.
Miller-Louden's own cards have brightened up everything from Christmas and Hanukkah to newer occasions like Nurses' Day. "I encourage students to expand their thinking and read all they can about specific holidays, and go ahead and tackle it in that common ground that unites us all," she says.
She also expands their ideas about the types of objects their writing could end up on. About 30 percent of her sales are verses for "auxiliary products" like T-shirts, calendars, mugs, plaques - even Post-it notes. As for electronic cards, there aren't yet a lot of freelance opportunities, says See, who has a contract with Bluemountain.com.
Credit on the back of a card is "one of the perks you can and should try for," Miller-Louden tells her writing students.
Even when their names appear, though, writers really serve as an invisible link.
When people receive cards, she explains, "No one says, 'Oh, look what this person wrote.'... It's, 'Look what [my friend] sent to me.' "
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society