How to write the perfect book inscription

You’ve chosen the perfect book for someone this Christmas. Here's how to make the gift even more special.

A line-drawing of a notebook with a pencil
Faced with a blank page? Image: iStock

A well-chosen book can make a person see themselves anew; it can be the push to make a life-changing decision; it can say "I know you" like nothing else.

But there are still ways to make a book an even more special gift, and inscribing a message inside the covers is one of the best. 


Where, though, to begin? It can be daunting to know how to write inside the cover of a brand-new book, so we’ve gathered a few tips.

Get the basics right

First things first: unless you plan on buying many books, you only get one opportunity to get this right. So start with the practicalities. Choose a nice pen, make sure it’s working before you begin writing, and make sure the space you’re working on is clean and tidy. Inscriptions are cute. Coffee stains? Less so.

Find the right place

Where to inscribe? There are a couple of options. If it’s a hardback book writing on the endpapers – the often-patterned papers that cover the inside of the hardcover and the pages beyond – is a popular choice, although it’s important to make sure that your text won’t get lost against a particularly busy or dark paper. Alternatively – and this option works for paperbacks and children’s books, too – you could write on the blank space around the title page, where the title and author’s names are listed, just inside the cover. In either case, it makes sense to inscribe a book within its first few pages: that’s where the recipient will spot it most quickly, and where your message will be best appreciated separate from the book’s text.

Mark the date

It may sound grand, but have half a mind on the future: what would you want to know if you were reading back on this inscription in the years to come? Inscribed books can become family heirlooms or deeply personal markers of time. If you’re giving a book to mark a birthday or Christmas, it may seem obvious to write the date, but to do so will tether whatever sentiment inside to a point in the recipient’s life. You may just want to note the year, or be more specific, but some nod to when you’re giving the book only strengthens the reasons why.

Think about what you want to say

To really nail an inscription think about why you are giving this book in the first place: are you marking a particular moment in the recipient’s life, such as a birthday, christening or graduation? Are you wanting to impart a little life advice? Perhaps you simply want to share. That intention will be a useful guide for what to write. Try not to be intimidated by the book or the words inside: it’s your feelings that count here, so write them. If it helps, try it out on a piece on scrap paper first.

Seek inspiration

All kinds of brilliant minds have left their own mark on copies of books, and you’d be surprised at both how banal many of these inscriptions are – and how touching as a result. There are instances of authors sneaking a family-in joke between the covers of a book, or setting the reader a challenge (American humourist Ring Lardner wrote “This book has had some swell reviews / From people who know more than youse” above his signature on some copies). Others pose a question or extend a dedication. All of which is to say that anything goes when you’re inscribing a book: as long as it’s true, write what matters to you.

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