Mojo’s top ten interpretation writing tips.
Useful principles to steer you in the right direction.
If you’re starting from scratch, writing great interpretation can seem like a daunting challenge. After all, there’s so much to learn and so many things to consider if you want to do it properly and avoid the most common interpretation mistakes.
These ten interpretation tips will point you in the right direction. Think of it as an interpretation cheat sheet full of useful principles which will steer your writing in the right direction.
Don’t make them work for it
Our visitors are here for a good time, not a hard time. While an exhibition will invariably have a story to tell and a message to broadcast, our visitors don’t want to be lectured or preached at. They want a nice experience they can tell their friends about, followed by a cup of tea and a slice of cake in the cafe afterwards. If we make them work too hard to understand our exhibitions the visitor is likely to disengage and take out their phone to see what’s happening on Instagram.
Museum panel word count
Research has shown that more words mean fewer readers. Long, wordy panels with cliff faces of text might contain a lot of useful or interesting information, but if the visitor doesn’t bother reading it, the panel is essentially useless.
Opinions vary on the ideal word count for a panel, and the type of exhibition you are writing for may have specific requirements too, but there’s no getting away from the fact that shorter panels get more readers. 100-150 words per panel is commonly considered a good range, and fewer is better every time.
Keep sentences short
Similarly, sentences should be kept relatively short, because long, overly-wordy sentences which ramble on about this and that without making a point can be exceptionally difficult and onerous to read, especially for people such as children or those for whom English might be their primary language. (See what we did there?) Sentences over 25 words should be edited or split into separate sentences if necessary.
Use less punctuation
Punctuation is important, but you’ll find that it becomes the villain where long sentences are concerned. If your sentence needs lots of punctuation it probably also needs an amount of mental agility to understand it. The sentence might be grammatically correct with punctuation in all the right places, but that doesn’t stop it from being difficult to read. Keep sentences short and you’ll avoid the comprehension issues caused by excessive punctuation.
Put text in columns
Short lines of text are easier to read than long ones. That’s why the text in newspapers and magazines is laid out in two or three columns across the page. It’s a principle we can use when designing museum panels and zoo signs. Not only does using columns make the text easier to read, it also means the content is broken into more consumable bite-sized chunks.
It’s all about the story
Facts are great – vital even. But facts can also be dry and boring unless they are rolled into an interesting and relevant story. Rudyard Kipling said, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” By weaving stories around our facts we can make information more engaging and relevant for our visitors.
Use fewer images
One large, eye-catching image is almost always better than using several smaller ones. Yes, there are exceptions to this rule, but you’ll need a decent grasp of interpretive design to know when and where this rule can be broken. Most of the time, though, a lovely big hero image will more engaging than lots of images competing for the visitor’s attention.
Avoid serif fonts
Again, there are exceptions, but a general rule of thumb is that sans-serif fonts are easier to read than serif ones. As we’ve mentioned previously, making our visitors work harder than necessary serves only to hinder our interpretive goals.
Know your audience
Many museum panels are written by experts – curators, historians, academics and the like. Unfortunately, the writing style used by specialists is often unsuitable for the typical, non-specialist visitor. Complex language, detailed information and jargon are off-putting for everyone except the writer’s fellow nerdy specialists – and these types of visitor are a tiny percentage of our exhibition’s footfall. Trust us when we say your typical visitor doesn’t want to battle through wordy, complex panels full of detailed and laborious text.