Are you talking to me?August 10, 2023
Hierarchy in interpretive writing
This Bank Holiday weekend I enjoyed a few days in Northumberland with the Heritage Hounds. Plenty of walking and the opportunity to revisit Lindisfarne Priory, which has been reinterpreted since I last visited. Of course my interpretive writing brain couldn’t fully switch off. I spotted something which got me thinking about the importance of layering, or creating a hierarchy, in interpretation. So I thought I’d share this with you.
What caught my eye was the introductory panel for the museum exhibition. (Much thanks to English Heritage btw for being so dog friendly, meaning the Heritage Hounds could visit too!). Striking in colour and design, it didn’t quite work as a piece of interpretive writing to meet the needs of different audiences. Want to know why?
The problem with the panel was partly its length. It was close to 200 words, if you include the instructional content at the end. Too long for an introduction. But the biggest issue was the lack of a hierarchy to suit different audiences. In my interpretive writing online courses I tell people to think about writing for:
- the streakers. They want to take in everything they really need to know from just the title, the first line or two and a good image
- the strollers. They will take a little longer, read a bit more of something if it captures their attention
- the studiers. They will read everything, top to bottom.
Depending on the circumstance of our visit, we can be any one of these at any time. On Sunday I was definitely in the streaker category, thanks to the Heritage Hounds who were more interested in finding the Priory cat outside! The content had been written as a chronology and not as a layered piece of interpretation. I then felt I had to read from top to bottom to get the full picture to start my visit, something I wasn’t able to do.
Crafting a hierarchy
Creating a hierarchy in interpretive writing is a tricky skill to master. It requires changing the way you would normally write, with a start, a middle and a conclusion or call to action. Instead you have to think about putting the ‘punch line’ first, delivering your message within the first few lines. Think of it like this:
What does the visitor really need to understand here to make sense of their visit? That’s your first sentence or paragraph.
What more might they want to know about this if their interest is engaged? Use your second paragraph to expand the story, adding more details.
Is there more to share that will contribute to our overarching message? This might form a third paragraph, or be captions to images.
(Left: Sculpture of St Cuthbert within the priory grounds)
Which one are you?
Think about any of your recent visits to heritage sites. Were you a streaker, stroller, or studier when you were there? Think about those experiences next time you are writing. And when you are editing your drafts, ask yourself ‘is this in the right layer?’.
If it helps you, consider that visitors spend on average just two seconds reading any given text. And studiers make up about 20% of the audience. That means that you need to make an impact quickly. And the majority are not going to read everything on the panel, no matter how finely crafted your words. So make it easy for your audience to find their own relevance and meaning in the stories you tell, by using a hierarchy when you write.
(Right: External interpretation at Lindisfarne Priory with more successful layering)