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Wayside Exhibit Writing
Start with a place. Tell a short, engaging story. Leave readers wanting more. It sounds simple, but space is limited and the audience fleeting. Visitors may linger at a wayside for 45 seconds or less. Can something of value be read in that short time? Wayside text must connect with, support, and enhance the images and landscapes visitors see. The following guidelines for wayside writing are particularly important for visitors with cognitive and learning disabilities.
Stay Connected with the View
Do not take it for granted that readers will automatically understand the link between the story and the place where they are standing. Make sure they do. But be careful not to describe what they can see readily with their own eyes.
Write in plain English, avoiding jargon and buzzwords. Avoid value judgments or subjective statements. Use an objective point of view to present interpretive messages in wayside exhibits. For safety rules, use direct, command-form instructions. Follow the Harpers Ferry Center Editorial Style Guide for specific guidance on word choices and format issues.
Use the Active Voice
Weed out passive voice, and use short, active verbs. Keep the story moving. Use common language. Look for ways to replace longer words derived from Latin or Greek with basic plain English. For safety rules on trailhead waysides, stick with direct, simple Do’s and Don’ts. Don’t dance around the subject.
How Many Words?
There is no one right answer to this question. Raw word counts vary for the many different sizes of waysides. An 18x18 can support far fewer words than a 36x48. A better measure is to get a stopwatch and have someone read draft wayside text out loud. Are the key ideas conveyed in less than 45 seconds? Did the reader stumble on hard-to-pronounce or not widely known words? If so, strike them out and rewrite.
Put Text into Hierarchies
All wayside text is not created equal. Keep key thoughts in main text blocks, and supporting details in captions or labels. Some visitors only read the title and look at the main graphic. Others read the main text and some captions. A few read it all. Sometimes ideas that started out in the main text find a better fit as a sidebar or a caption. Sometimes a phrase can be cut out of main text and put to work as a direct label on an image. Keep each element focused.
The Most Powerful Sentence
Many writers find they need to work up to the heart of the matter, like a diver bounces on a diving board. It may take one, two, or three sentences to get there. After writing draft wayside text, find the best sentences. Try them out as the first sentence instead of leaving them in the middle or at the end.
Get Feedback and Edit, Edit, Edit
Compose the first draft. Compare it to the purpose statement. Read it in the context of the layout and a photo of the site. Get feedback from other writers, interpreters, and general-knowledge-only readers. Rigorously cut away everything that can be eliminated. The craft of writing good waysides depends as much on subtraction as on creativity.
The “So-What?” Test
Good wayside writing will help people discover something meaningful and worth the interruption. Why should they care? Look for hidden relationships. Find an angle of interest, a way to help visitors see what can’t be seen. Write for the reader’s benefit, not for your own pleasure or sense of what people ought to learn. Think about the visitor’s sense of place and address the moment of curiosity, the questions inspired by the place
Effective Interpretive Writing Video
Veteran HFC writer-editor Ed Zahniser gives a concise, hard-hitting talk on interpretive writing for a 2008 TEL (Technology Enhanced Learning) broadcast. This 20-minute video is packed with good ideas on interpretive writing.
Effective Interpretive Writing (Flash required)