Writing: in so many words

Imagine you are a hard-working exhibition designer who has sweated and struggled to meet all the demands of the exhibit planner and curators, carefully arranging images, typography and artifacts to produce an elegant display panel only to have the writer drop an extra 30 words on you the night before the panel goes to production. That sort of thing tends to make designers homicidal. Likewise, when the writing has been edited by everybody from the Director to the guy who maintains the photocopier and is finally ‘writ in stone’, the last thing the copywriter wants to hear is the designer telling him to cut out a further 30 words. That also tends to promote homicidal tendencies in otherwise gentle people. In order to prevent the creative team from ending up in hospital and/or jail, the amount of written content is decided upon before the formal designing begins. So, right from the start of the writing process, the writer is allotted only so many words for each subject zone and the designer can be guaranteed that a block of text will remain the same size. Nobody has to go to jail.

Now the writer takes a deep breath and attempts to take a subject like the ‘representation of 75 years of national identity as depicted on stamps and bank notes’ from 50 pages of research and squash it into 65 words - sort of like trying to tweet a novel. It’s amazing how long it takes to write 65 words: he throws it out, starts over, revises some more, decides he hates it, throws out all the adverbs as well as half the adjectives, puts a third back in, decides to quit and join the military, misplaces his last version, cries a little and then shuffles groggily into work Monday morning, changes a comma to a semi-colon and declares it finished. Now the frustrating part can begin. The ‘finished’ copy bounces like a badminton birdie from writer to project manager, to writer, to exhibit planner, to writer, to curator, to writer, back to curator, to writer, to director, to copy editor, to writer and then to translator and another translator and finally to the designer to plug it into the panel design. If at this point the copy resembles the first ‘finished’ draft in any way, it is purely coincidental and likely it’s just the typeface.

The majority of these panel blurbs are 50-75 words long and that ain’t much. That’s like the back of your average breakfast cereal box. Most museum panels are designed to demand about the same amount of attention as a cereal box, while communicating a whole lot more than stuff about riboflavin. It’s a serious challenge that has spawned scads of books, seminars and keynote addresses over the years. It’s a subject area crammed with statistics gathered by cheerful summer students and exhaustive research by earnest museum professionals who have come to the conclusion that nobody reads anything in a museum, ever! OK, fine, that’s an exaggeration. But long after we are all driving hover cars and wearing silver suits, the alchemists of museum communications will still be hard at it trying to discover the golden formula of brevity, simplicity, education and entertainment necessary for a successful bit of panel writing. It may actually be rocket science. Where’s my silver suit?

As for Voices from the Engraver, the writing has been ‘finalized’ and translated. The designer has not attempted to harm the writer in any way and they are still friends. Now we can chat about the design process and give you a sneak peek at how the exhibit panels will look.

Next time.