Most guidebooks follow a time-honoured style. The writers, who are usually curators or historians, pack the book chock-full with information relaying as much of their encyclopaedic knowledge as possible. While this type of book might appeal to a few nerdy specialist visitors, they’re not so appealing to the everyday Joe and Joanne who are the people who most typically come through our door– and it is these we should be targeting if we want our site and our guidebook to have a wider audience
It should be no surprise to anyone in the heritage sector that the vast majority of visitors are not experts or history enthusiasts. They’re just normal folk looking for a leisurely, interesting and entertaining day out – and they don’t want to have to work too hard to get it. It’s important to remember this when we write a guidebook or a panel.
A very different kind of guidebook
We were contacted by Cardigan Castle to produce a very different kind of guidebook. Like all heritage sites, they wanted to tell the fascinating story of their history ̶ from its medieval battleground roots, to its dereliction at the hands of an eccentric and cantankerous private owner and its glorious modern-day renovation. The stories represented a gold-mine for anyone with an ear for a good tale.
The castle already had an excellent and detailed historical guide written by their resident historian, Glen Johnson, who had been campaigning for the Castle’s renovation since the 1980s. Our brief was to write a more user-friendly title, more akin to a souvenir or coffee-table book. Since the Castle’s extensive renovation, the site was fast becoming a major tourist attraction. And we were to learn that their popularity was set to skyrocket.
So, we approached the Cardigan Castle guidebook from a completely different perspective, applying strict interpretation principles throughout the creative process. We knew the new guidebook needed to be easy and pleasurable to read. The vast majority of the Castle’s visitors are a non-captive audience, so if you don’t hold their attention they’ll look elsewhere for entertainment. The guide also needed to be engaging, easy to navigate and require little effort to understand. With this aim in mind, we set to work in December 2016 with a strict delivery deadline at the end of March – just four months later.
How to write a guidebook
Working with stakeholders and historians from the Castle, and after many hours of research and reading, we made a plan to cherry-pick the Castle’s best stories and tell each one as a stand-alone item on its own page. Each would be presented in a logical sequence taking the reader on a journey from one story to the next, and each story would be accompanied by one simple but striking eye-candy image. Distilling the stories to their punchy, engaging essence was a challenge which required detailed feedback and numerous amendments, edits and re-writes. Working closely with the client stakeholders was vitally important to ensure we told the stories accurately, and the feedback and amendments process required at least as many work hours as writing the first drafts.
One of the main hurdles for the project was availability of images. The photos not only needed to be hi-resolution and visually appealing, they also needed to do a specific job. We wanted the images to add something to the story, unlike traditional guidebook images which are illustrative, but often don’t add anything to the story being told. Choosing suitable images from the limited selection that fitted the criteria required some lateral thinking, not to mention some extra expenditure to acquire better pictures. But sticking to the high-standards we had set meant the end result was well worth the effort.
The most important ingredient
However, it was the application of good interpretive practice which inevitably made the guidebook a success, and this required significant planning and strict adherence to interpretation principles. Principles are only principles if you stick to them through thick and thin – otherwise they’re just good ideas.
We knew that readability was key, so we kept the word-count as low as possible and split the copy into bite-sized chunks. Restricting word-count meant making ruthless decisions with regard to the information we could and could not include. This ruthlessness is one factor which usually discerns the work of an experienced interpreter from a curator or historian guidebook writer. The compulsion to include everything and the reluctance to cull precious information is a common affliction for those who are passionate about a subject. Instead, interpreters have a passion to communicate with visitors, which enables us to make an objective appraisal of each story, curating only the most engaging content. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.
Another important protocol involved layering information. Each page required a title which would not only introduce the story, but also appeal to the reader, compelling them to read on. From there the information was layered further into a stand-first paragraph and body text, with each line providing more depth, engagement and detail. Layering information helps to reassure the reader that the stories and information on that page will be interesting and relevant. The nightmare for any writer is for a visitor to read through a cliff-face of text, only to then exclaim “Well there’s five minutes of my life I’ll never get back!”
Good interpretive writers apply a series of tests to the copy they produce, and they should be considered in this order of importance.
This is something at which the curator or historian will excel. Interpretive writers must rely on experts to ensure the content they produce is factually correct.
The copy must be clear and easy to read and understand. Most people, and particularly academics, employ the same writing style which carried them through university. Sadly, this style of communicating is only effective when readers have a vested interest in digesting the information. Museum visitors are not a captive audience and have no desire to wade through an onerous info-panel or guidebook.
Authority is the element which provides the reader with something they didn’t already know. Learning something new and exciting is the appeal of most heritage sites and museums, and curators are the gatekeepers of this information.
In my view, this is the most important aspect of interpretive writing and is also the point at which most museum folk fall down. The visitor is only interested in that which is relevant to them ̶ the stories which strike a chord with who they are or what they know and what they value. Unfortunately most museum staff write about what is important to themselves, seemingly aspiring to appeal to their equally academic and nerdy peers.
- Linguistic skill
Interpretive writing is both a science and an art. A good writer can make words come alive without forcing them with clunky metaphors or clever prose. Having employed the previous points on this checklist, the best interpreters can then use their writing skills to enthral and engage the reader – and surely this is the aim of every heritage site.
The Cardigan Castle formula
The Cardigan Castle project was a rare delight. Instead of trying to save a relatively small amount of cash by writing the guidebook themselves, the Cardigan Castle team understood and appreciated the value of good interpretation.
But what about that oppressive four-month deadline? Well, this was because the client had a secret. Although the series had not yet been aired, they knew that Cardigan Castle had won the Channel 4 Restoration of the Year Award. Having predicted their visitor numbers would go through the roof they wanted the guidebook on the shelves ready for the new season. We completed the guidebook in plenty of time and it has been flying off the shelves ever since. Cardigan Castle’s 2017 season has smashed all revenue and visitor number records and predictions, and we were delighted to be a small part of its success. And the secret to success is always the story.
Tony Jones is UK based interpretive writer and planner at 52 Oaks, working with museum design companies and heritage sites around the world. You can follow him on twitter @Tony52Oaks