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Writing effective interpretation

The best interpretive text brings natural heritage to life through storytelling and the use of various creative techniques.

A great deal of thought and practice goes into writing good interpretive text.

One of the main ways it differs from visitor information is that interpretive text should relate to the audience. Various writing techniques can help you to do this well.

Always think of your audience

Write simply and clearly, just as you would talk to a friend. Don’t just try to get across as many facts as you can. Tell a story that your audience will read and remember.

Address the reader directly

Use ‘you’ when talking to your audience. For example: “You can see the lichen clinging to the trees, taking in water and nutrients from the air.”

Active not passive verbs

Your text will flow better, your point will be clearer and you’ll use fewer words. For example, “We manage the National Nature Reserve” reads better than “The National Nature Reserve is managed by SNH”.

Pitch the reading age right

In general, a reading age of 9 to 12 is a good level at which to pitch your interpretive text – roughly the same as for tabloid newspapers. Writing at this level uses very few technical or scientific terms, and is easily understood by most older children and adults.

Include metaphors, analogies and comparisons

Your audience may understand better if you relate what you’re writing about to something that’s already familiar to them. For example: “Loch Ness is so deep, you could stand 100 Nelson’s Columns in it, one on top of the other.”

Use humour – with care

Write for your audience’s enjoyment. Your visitors are just like you – they like to be amused, challenged and entertained.

Humour can be a great way to get your audience on side. But remember, what one person finds funny may turn another reader off.

Fire their imagination

Ask your audience questions and invite them to imagine aspects of the story you’re trying to tell.

For example:

  • “What famous drink comes from this innocent looking bush?”
  • “Can you imagine living here during the Clearances, when your whole village was thrown off its land?”

Use first-person narrative

Adopting a character to tell your story in the first person can be a very effective way to grab people’s attention – and keep it.

Keep it clear and concise

Use short and simple sentences and paragraphs. Vary sentence length here and there. And stick to one idea per sentence.

It all helps to avoid boring your audience or putting them off before they even begin reading.

Avoid jargon and technical terms

Use plain English. Jargon and technical terms aren’t widely understood. If you use them, you’ll lose many readers.

Pictures can be very useful where you must describe something that’s difficult to put into words.

Choose your words carefully

You should talk in general about ‘people’, rather than refer specifically to ‘men’ or ‘women’. And use gender-neutral job titles – for example, ‘firefighter’ instead of ‘fireman’.

Edit, read and edit again

Get your writing as tight as possible. If you can do without a word, lose it.