What to write in a birthday card

Increase the cherish-ability of your words with these 8 simple tips

Fiona McDougall
Partner, Fondfolio

We’ve all been there. It’s the night of our friend’s party, we’re already running late and still haven’t written the card! So often it’s the last thing we do before dashing out the door  –  scribble down some cliché or half-hearted hyperbole “Have a great day, you deserve it!” or “You’re the best, have the most amazing Birthday EVER!”. We don’t intend our words to be trite, but that’s how they read and — unless our friend is a pack-rat — our card (no matter how cute) is destined for the dump. Yet, with a little effort the humble card can outshine most gifts and be something our friend actually wants to keep.

What humans crave most in life is deep connection to others. Genuine words of appreciation penned by someone we love can help bolster those relationships. This is an opportunity to say something heartfelt and provide a rare tangible counterpoint to today’s fleeting interactions — frivolous likes and ambiguous reactji. There isn’t much space in most cards (100 – 150 words, max) so no-one expects an essay. Below are some techniques you can try to make those words more meaningful. I’ve also included a few of my favourite cards saved over the years.

1. Make notes

Before putting pen to card, start a note of ideas in point-form and add to it whenever you have downtime. I like to use the Notes app on my phone so it’s always handy. The simple act of establishing intent and habit, even if it’s only for a couple of minutes a day for a few days, will start to generate ideas.

A birthday card from a couple of good pals, 2017

2. Ready your headspace

It’s hard to launch into something like this unprimed so, in the same way you warm up for a run or prep for a productive work session, you might find the need to perform similar rituals to connect with your emotional core. Plan to write when you know you’ll have a quiet moment alone or when you find yourself in a mind-wandering situation — on the train to work, or before you go to bed. I prefer to do this in the evenings when I can have a beer, smoke a wee joint, and play some good ambient music (I’m easily distracted by lyrics). Consider what this person means to you, the impact they have on your life–past, present, future—and why exactly you enjoy their company.

3. Get personal, and specific

If you’re already going to the trouble of giving a card, especially when it’s for someone you care about, you owe it to them, yourself, and that lovely bit of paper to write something thoughtful. Draw from particular memories that you’ve shared. For example, recounting something they did for you recently that you appreciated. By describing a specific memory or experience you’ll ensure that nobody else will write the same message. In my experience, the difference between an okay and a great card often comes down to how thoughtful the writer was about including personal details and observations.

This is also a great opportunity to highlight the qualities you admire about the recipient – let them be known! Your observation might even be the first time this has ever been brought to their attention, and from then on every time they notice that detail about themselves it will forever be connected to your kind words.

In your opinion what does this person not get told enough? Perhaps they were really good at teaching you how to fillet a freshly caught fish, or maybe they were a patient non-judgemental ear for you when you were recounting a difficult conversation you had with a coworker? Maybe it’s the seemingly effortless way they can start a friendly chat with anyone, even the grumpy guy at the hardware store who you find very intimidating. Often the virtues that are presented most obviously in plain view are also the things that are taken for granted. If you are more prone to complimenting your friend on just one aspect (i.e. only their physical appearance) this can be a good exercise for expanding your awareness of other qualities you love about them. Bonus points for reminding them of a moment they’d completely forgotten!

A 30th birthday card from my partner Matt, 2016 (we eventually adopted a stray instead of buying a sphynx and he’s the best).

4. Avoid negativity

If you’ve written anything defensive or aggressive, take it out. You may have unresolved issues with this person, but this is not the time nor place for that  –  write words you want to be remembered forever. Aim for humanity and warmth.

5. Be yourself not a cliché

You don’t need to be a “good writer” to craft a meaningful message, you just need to be you. That’s not as easy as it sounds, but a quick way to make your message warmer and less mechanical is by using a natural tone, almost as if you were speaking the words in conversation  – you’re instead of you are. Your words should sound like you, so try not to write things you wouldn’t say out loud, for example “stroll” might technically be the most appropriate word, but “walk” will sound more natural. With a personal note, unlike other forms of creative writing, the thesaurus is probably not your friend.

“With a personal note, unlike other forms of creative writing, the thesaurus is probably not your friend.”

When offering advice, phrases like, Stop to smell the roses or Live each day as if it were your last are well-intentioned sentiments, but anyone could say them and if the words you’ve written sound like they were lifted from a dollar store card, you may as well not have bothered. The goal of this exercise is to express yourself and communicate why you specifically care about the recipient, so focus on your own feelings. Your own words may share the same sentiment as the cliché, but the difference is that only you will have said them. Writing in a human tone and describing how you really feel will help make your words sincere and engaging. Or as T.S. Elliot once noted: If you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in, you will interest other people.

I’ve kept a lot of cards from these two as they were always so playful, creative and sweet.

6. Focus, keep it simple, edit

Being creative with words, sentence structures and punctuation, can make us feel smart, but (as with any writing project) we should always try to put clarity before creativity. Small digressions  –  no matter how elegant  –  make stories unfocused and tiring to read. The goal, in the words of product designer and self-described minimalist Dieter Rams, is less, but better leaving only what is absolutely essential to the message. Kurt Vonnegut had similar advice: Pity the readers which simply reminds you to think about who you’re writing for and not to waste their time.

7. Don’t overshare

Your message will be read by your friend, but may also get passed around for others to read. This is not the place to expose sensitive information or personal details that might hurt, embarrass or incriminate anyone. You can tease, but do so with love.

8. Inside is what counts

Pretty letterpress cards are great, but a nice piece of blank cardstock will do, especially if you’ve taken the time to write something thoughtful inside.


It’s comforting to be reminded every once in a while, especially during times of celebration or personal challenge, that we’re valued by the people we care about. The message you write in a card is an easy – often overlooked – chance to lift someone’s spirits. It takes a little more effort, but like a compliment spoken aloud, the end result of shared affection (and saved paper) is worth it.

Words worthNext