Tips for Writing Exhibit Labels
“Once you know something, it’s almost impossible to put yourself in the shoes of the person who doesn’t know. To communicate more clearly, we need to remember what it’s like not to know. ”
– Richard Saul Wurman
In this Tool, exhibit developer, writer and editor Judy Rand (Director of Rand & Associates), takes you step-by-step through her award-winning process for writing effective and engaging exhibit labels.
The steps and activities below are designed not only to inspire you to create labels that engage visitors, but also to teach you to write effective labels on a deadline – a really important skill!
When it’s time to write labels…
1. Switch perspective!
Instead of thinking “What do I want this label to say?” ask “Why might a visitor need a label here?”
Put yourself in your visitors’ shoes.
Ask “What would a visitor wonder?”
What would a VISITOR wonder?
1. Put the object in front of you.
2. Imagine you’re a visitor who has NEVER seen this thing before.
* What questions would they have?
* What would they wonder?
3. Look at the object. Touch it. Smell it. Experience it.
4. Start writing down questions from the visitors’ point of view. Write as many as you can. Keep writing questions for a full 5 minutes: the more questions you identify, the better.
(Don’t worry if the questions seem basic or offbeat—visitors ask all kinds of questions!)
2. Research, Rapid-Write, Revise!
We all know writing exhibit labels requires you to write on a tight deadline. The activity below describes a process that will help you focus, so you don’t fall down a rabbit hole doing unnecessary research.
The Writing Process
Step 1. Research
Use your visitors’ questions (from Activity 1) to guide a quick round of research: simply find the answers and relevant facts.
Step 2. Ruminate
Think deeply about the object, what visitors might wonder, and what they’d be interested in. Which facts help you answer their questions?
Step 3. Rapid-write
Write, write, write! Write it all down, fast—don’t stop to edit or correct. (You’ll do that in Step 5.)
Step 4. Retreat
If time allows, take a break. Stop writing. Put the label draft away and come back to it later.
Step 5. Revise
Time to edit. Make sure you’re using short words and short sentences. (The shorter the text, the more people will read.)
Writing on a deadline
How long does it take to write a good object label?
Professional label-writers say, “Five hours, three hours, 1.5 hours—it depends!” Ideally, you’ll schedule ahead so you can take the time you need.
Following the Writing Process in Activity 2 will help you meet even the tightest deadline. The secret is to set a strict time limit for each step—and stick to it.
How much time do you have?
(Let’s say five hours.)
Divide your time by 5.
- Research (1 hour)
- Ruminate (1 hour)
- Rapid-write (1 hour)
- Retreat (1 hour)
- Revise (1 hour)
What if time is really tight?
Cut the process to 3 steps.
Divide your time by 3.
- Research (30 minutes)
- Rapid-write (30 minutes)
- Revise (30 minutes)
It’s hard work – but oh, so worth it in the end!