Book suggestion needed: 7 reasons why you need better copy/writing
February 20, 2017 12:40 PM   Subscribe

I create digital projects for museums, and I am often shocked by how bad they are at giving their articles ("longreads") juicy titles, or writing their art-historical content into texts that people might actually want to read instead of give up on after two sentences.

I understand that not everything needs to be "you'll never believe" or "x reasons why", but I think they would benefit from some better writing. (or audience-focused thinking)

That said: I have trouble explaining why a different style would be smart, or how it could be better.
And I'd like a book, or blog that outlines the value, and potentially some strategies - for myself, but also to suggest to others.

Side question: Is this a lost cause? Or do you have tricks to get people to see the light? How does one become an engaging writer?
posted by Thisandthat to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
As part of "creating the digital project" can you not include a "project communications strategy" to go with it? We do this for websites because it is a waste of the clients' money if we builf them a beautiful vessel and they sink it with shit content.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:50 PM on February 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think the term you are looking for is "Content Strategy" and this might be a good place to start thinking about it.
posted by Medieval Maven at 12:54 PM on February 20, 2017

I worked for a museum for almost four years. Coming from journalism and media, I was surprised at how little exhibit staff cared about true readability. By "true" I mean that they saw it as a choice between either writing for kids or writing academese. They didn't, for example, understand what are considered fundamentals in newspaper journalism, such as how newspapers provide multiple entry points into the same story with heds, subheds, ledes/précis/standfirsts, the body, and pull quotes.

They were also all highly resistant to what I would call "development editing." They wanted to write whatever and then get a quick copyedit at the end.

The results were as you might imagine. Nothing truly terrible, but never excellent, either.

Also, they had an overarching fatalist view that "nobody reads the text." For some visitors, that was true. But the visitors who did read the text cared, and they cared a lot.

For me, trying to get them to change was a lost cause. They simply could not stop writing academese, or, alternately, overcompensating so much in the other direction that the writing came off as condescending, puerile, or nearly empty of meaning and value.

The best solution is to hire someone who is already an engaging writer and then put them in charge of all exhibit text; they report to the head of the exhibit development team. Then, a separate non-staff person does the copyediting.
posted by Mo Nickels at 2:08 PM on February 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

Showing is better than telling. Take a couple of their older articles, and we write them in a "contenty" way. Have them view the result the and the difference.

There's a number of projects that I worked on, as a freelance writer, where I took the original draft, made significant changes, and everybody went "oh I see what you mean, NOW."
posted by tilde at 2:25 PM on February 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

I write exhibit labels as part of my job. What Mo Nickels describes is not the case where I work, but its definitely prevalent in many museums, and I have a lot of colleagues who think writing simple and straightforward and engagingly = writing for children (as if there's something wrong with writing for children, anyway). It seems like you are working with content that is longer than a 75-word label, but here's some museum-focused suggestions that might be relevant, anyway:

Beverly Serrell's Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach is a classic -- it helps writers focus on the audiences they want to reach and what they need, rather than the content they are determined to cram into one tiny block of text.

Anything by Judy Rand is worth your time, especially when she talks about the process of writing and editing or who labels are for.

If you're looking for good examples of short, vivid writing to show your colleagues, look at some of the past winners of the AAM Award for Excellence in Label Writing (caveat: I won one of these, so I am biased here).
posted by heurtebise at 3:02 PM on February 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

Museums Can Change—Will They?. Although it ranges more broadly than your particular question, the thesis is that "The purpose of an art museum is more, better engagement with art," and the analysis discusses the many dimensions in which art museums generally fall short of that goal, and various ways in which they could improve.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:35 PM on February 20, 2017

Yes, I'm working with online projects mostly: content-heavy websites, blogs, and videos that are just not up to par in a catchy-video-saturated-media landscape.

Thanks for all the suggestions!. Going to read&watch now.

I'd love to write better copy myself, though that's not in my skill set. But I'll find someone else to do it and show them the difference.
I think keeping statistics on different headlines or articles will probably convince management that they might want to invest in a good writer..
posted by Thisandthat at 12:12 AM on February 21, 2017

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