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Exhibit Development

Tips for Writing Exhibit Labels

 June 1, 2019
 Judy Rand

 “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

 

Overview

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?

Activity 1:

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.

Pro Tip: Research

Research yields lots of attractive information that may take you sideways. Stay focused on your visitors’ questions, the exhibit’s Big Idea, and the parts of the story that connect to both when crafting your text.

Activity 2:

 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.

  1. Research         (1 hour)
  2. Ruminate        (1 hour)
  3. Rapid-write    (1 hour)
  4. Retreat            (1 hour)
  5. Revise              (1 hour)

What if time is really tight?

Cut the process to 3 steps.

Divide your time by 3.

  1. Research         (30 minutes)
  2. Rapid-write    (30 minutes)
  3. Revise              (30 minutes)

It’s hard work – but oh, so worth it in the end!

Resources

Judy Rand’s Article “Less is More. And More is Less"

Visitors have only so much attention to give. Putting more in front of them doesn’t mean they can devote more attention to it.

Judy Rand | Label Writing Activity

Judy Rand, Director of Rand and Associates, takes you step by step through her process for writing effective and engaging exhibit labels. This presentation was recorded at the One Size Fits All? Workshop for museum professionals held by the USS Constitution Museum in Boston, MA, November 15, 2010.

Making Narratives Physically Accessible

Check out this tool for tips on accessible object labels.

American Alliance of Museums. Exhibition Label Writing Competition

By highlighting the remarkable work of label writers and editors, the competition seeks to champion high-quality label writing and inspire museum professionals to produce and showcase their very best work.