Whether writing for exhibits, websites, books, videos, interactives, or magazines, I adjust my writing style to fit the requirements of the medium, meet the needs of the audience, and reflect the character of the client.
I started my writing career in 1991 when the editor of Popular Mechanics, Joe Oldham, asked me to write a history of the magazine for its 90th anniversary issue in 1992. I’d been working on an exhibit that had required looking at every issue of the magazine since 1902, so I knew the material. When I protested that I wasn’t a writer, he said “Write the way you talk. It’ll be great!” It was good advice.
Writing the way I talked worked for PM, but it isn’t always what a project needs. Since then I’ve written for clients ranging from the Sisters of Mercy to the NASCAR Hall of Fame with style and substance appropriate to each. Most of the time my writing projects include in-depth research, however I have done projects based on research completed by others.
Often I’m not an expert in the exhibit or website subject. I think that’s a plus because I can bring a fresh perspective and am more easily able to craft a great hook or pare down long tomes into short labels easily understood by what is often also a non-expert audience. I listen carefully. One of my skills is grabbing ideas or themes or great phrases that often fly through the air in a meeting; gems uttered by people who often don’t realize that they just said something great.
My approach usually starts with what I call “barf on the page:” get something down on paper quickly to share and begin the discussion. I listen to opinions and try to synthesize good solutions that address all concerns. I enjoy the editing process and expect writing to be a collaborative project rather than a solo endeavor.
All writing—even mine!—needs editing. I’m not a technical copy editor, I’m often asked to polish the prose of others. My work on the Driving America exhibit for The Henry Ford, for example, included working with six writers (seven if you count me!) to ensure the labels were in a single voice. I worked with each curator individually to revise the text through several drafts and reviews to ensure the meaning didn’t change even when words or structure did. I then worked with a copy editor to review punctuation, grammar, and other subtleties for accuracy prior to proofreading in the final graphic layout.
For larger exhibit projects I normally create a style guide so the team can evaluate and approve the approach before we start. This is especially important where there will be more than one writer on a project. A style guide typically includes examples, and is updated to include label format decisions as design proceeds. Items addressed might include:
- a description of the target audiences,
- the voice of the exhibit,
- whether the text will be formal, informal, or somewhere in between,
- the label hierarchy (types of labels) and target lengths for each.
Some technical subjects might require an alphabetical list showing how we agree to format common words and abbreviations encountered in that subject. For example, is it Cubic Inches, cubic inches, cu. in., ci, or in³? A traditional reference manual might give a standard answer, but is it the right answer for your audience? Will the readers be experts? Children? Non-native English speakers? Do they need to know the cubic inches at all? Would a diagram be better? This is just one example of why a style guide is important.
I was delighted to win the American Alliance of Museums’ 2002 “Excellence in Exhibition Label Writing” competition with a 17-word label.
Short seems to be the secret of my success: in 2014 I was one of three winners of the 2014 Michigan Humanities Council/Michigan Radio “micro story-writing” contest in which stories had to be 120 words or fewer. In museum terms, that’s practically Moby Dick! This is my blog post about it.
Contact me for writing samples appropriate to your project.