Do you have any idea what that Valentine's Day card has been through? (Photo by Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)If you think it's hard to find the right words to say to your Valentine, imagine how greeting card writers feel. Those men and women who've spent months toiling over the perfect sentiment for millions of strangers are the unsung heroes of February 14. From '94 through '99, David Ellis Dickerson was among them. During his five-year tenure at Hallmark, he told your wife how much he loves to kiss her forehead, and reminded your single friend she's doesn't need a man. Dickerson, now an author and contributor to NPR's This American Life, talked to Shine about the business of writing love notes. Make no mistake, it's all business.
Shine: Lets start with a loaded question. Do men and women shop for Valentine's cards differently?
David Dickerson: The difference in shopping behavior is huge. Women will go to stores to browse and relax. Men, for the most part, want to get in and get out. So guys gravitate to the most obvious cards: the biggest, showiest, most expensive looking one on the rack. The funny thing is that because it's more expensive, it's going to be surprisingly mushy on the inside.
S: So the puffy, glittery cards usually are more sentimental?
DD: Actually, we in the business call it 'flitter': the glittery cards, or the flower-shaped ones or anything with a cutout or a window. Those are more expensive and they usually have more text because that offers more perceived value. Only problem is, the more you say, the more you get into trouble. Men tend to shy away from something that says too much. I once wrote a sonnet for a Valentine's card for a man to give to a woman. One of the stanzas went "I shouldn't wake you, but I can't resist/I feel such love, I don't know what to do/And your forehead is just begging to be kissed..."
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S: Those are bold words coming from a stranger.
DD: It tanked, because no guy wants to stand in the shop and weigh the meaning of those words. But if it was written as a wife to her husband it might have worked.
S: So men look for flash when they're buying a Valentine, and women want Shakespeare?
DD: Women are more complicated than men. There's more nuance-sentimental, humor it runs the gamut, but they're more likely to read every card.
S: Are there any words writers are banned from using on a Valentine?
DD: We tried to avoid 'soul mate terminology' because you don't know how well a couple is going to know each other or how well they're getting along. Some one might not feel comfortable using the word 'love' which is where the word 'special' comes in. You'll see that again and again on greeting cards: "for a special mom" or "for a special person." The word special can mean anything from "you're the most beautiful person to me" to "I'm glad I don't live that close to you anymore."
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S: Are there any images that don't work on a Valentine?
DD: People tend to not buy a card if the people on cover don't look like them. That's why there are animals on so many cards. People may feel more a squirrel or a monkey at heart, compared to another human who doesn't look like them. There's also the cartoon person of indeterminate gender you may have seen on cards.
S: Most traditional Valentine's cards seen to cater to heterosexual couples. Did that change while you were working at Hallmark in the '90s?
DD: Not as a directive while I was there, but there was a writer I worked with who would try to keep her cards gender-neutral. There are tricks for making cards more generic to appeal to a wider audience.
DD: If you see a card that starts "Thought you'd" instead of "I thought you'd" it's a way of widening the audience so the card can be from more than one person.
S: So your sitting in Kansas City, Missouri, at Hallmark's headquarters, and you get word that it's time get cracking on Valentines. Now what?
DD: We'd get a list of price points. Say, they need 20 cards at the $1.99 price point, 20 more at $5.99, those price points would guide what we'd write. There were also codes for certain kinds of formats they'd want written, like they'd ask for a "HMYM" which was a "How Much You Mean to Me" card. I'm a humor writer so I'd write the comedy cards but we all had to do our time with the serious cards, which are written in verse. So for next three weeks, we're writing, often with a rhyming dictionary at our side.
S: Are all greeting card writers humorists?
DD: There are lot of routes to break into the industry. A lot of people come from advertising, but I worked with one person who study ancient Greek and another who was a pizza delivery guy before he started at Hallmark.
S: How much are you expected to write in a day?
DD: I could write up to 20 cards a day but there's a 90 percent rejection rate so only a few of them would make it out into the world.
S: So there's a lot of failed attempts at Valentines. Did you write any greatest hits during your Hallmark tenure?
DD: I had one runaway hit with a verse that ended with, "I love my husband all the time and I just hope he knows." That one particular phrasing had never shown up on other cards and it spoke to a lot of women.
S: What kind of Valentine card is going to speak to you this holiday?
DD: I'll be writing my own, only because I know how to do it. Most greeting card writers never buy cards. But whether it's my own words or not, I still find greeting cards tremendously charming. That's why card sales are still doing well--people like mementos and keepsakes. There's something really powerful about holding a folded piece of paper that a bunch of people produced, as opposed to a message someone posted on your Facebook wall.
David Ellis Dickerson is the author of House of Cards: Love, Faith and other Social Expressions. He also hosted Greeting Card Emergency a video series where he helped write their way of out of sticky situations. Here's his advice for the ultimate break-up card.
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