Writing great cards #1: Westlake on invention and expression

“In all kinds of composition, there are two things necessary: first, to have something to say; second, to say it.” How to Write Letters by J Willis Westlake

Westlake says that the two principles applicable to the composition of any writing are invention and expression. Invention is the finding of something interesting to say, expression is how you say it.


Let’s pretend you’re writing a card for your mum. We’ve all thrown the kitchen sink at this challenge before and condensed onto a short card that (1) you’re grateful for all she’s done for you, (2) you think she’s the kindest/prettiest/most wonderful person, (3) she’s the best mum in the world, (4) she means the world to you, and (5) you love her dearly. I pause to point out that these are all wonderful things to say to your mum.

Westlake suggests that invention requires some “... originality, talent, judgement, and information”. Taking that on board, let’s focus on one or two things that in your mind makes your mum special and interesting.

For example:

  • her love for a good fancy dress party.
  • how she’s mates with the staff at Woolies.
  • how she dances in the kitchen whilst making dinner.
  • how she sometimes emails her favourite celebrities.


It was Mark Twain who said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” The best compliments are the ones that are specific, and why not follow up with why that specific thing means so much to you. No lazy compliments, please!

Let’s say you want the message to focus on one of the things from the list above, you could tell her:

  • how she was best dressed at your 21st and how that’s still one of your favourite memories from the day.
  • you went to Woolies the other day and the cashiers were asking where she was. They were worried you’d found another Woolies ... You told them that you think she’s actually going to the new Checkers.
  • whenever Dancing in the Moonlight plays, you always picture her dancing around the kitchen singing the wrong lyrics.
  • you saw Heinz Winckler the other day, and he promised to reply to her email soon. 

If your card gives your mom that great from-the-belly laugh at a special memory of yours, imagine how that could brighten her day?

We’ll look at other ways to set your card apart in this series of posts. 

(I would have never heard about Westlake's writing if it weren't for Maria Popova's Brain Pickings)