Interpretive writing: sharp writing for busy people

Writing so that busy, distracted people take notice is a good skill to have in the 21st century. If you can’t do it, you may want some training.

More and more we need to write for people in a hurry. For people who have most of their mind on other things.

Billboards and advertising at Times Square, New York, America

Our readers have little time and often not that much interest in us or our words.

They are getting smarter and less patient at sifting written information. They are good at skimming and scanning text. If they don’t see what they like fast, they and their attention are gone in a click.

Happily there are specific writing skills for this. With a bit of training and a bit more practice you can learn them – for instance on this course.

Words are like muscles. They can pack a punch, but only if you train.

Young woman running through a field splashing herself with water in training for a marathon

The good news is learning to write smart for busy people is a lot easier than training for a marathon. I know, my daughter is training for that 26 miles at the moment.

As challenges go, learning to write sharp is in the moderate zone.  It is learnable and I teach it regularly. But it still takes application and practice.

Things that help:

  • An experienced coach and a good course can do wonders
  • You’ll need to do word workouts to help you to loosen and then tighten your writing.
  • Limbering up will help you to face the blank page without a tremor.
  • You’ll have to have focus and ambition. Your goal is to get people thinking and talking, so your words have to be big enough and strong enough to get out there and to start a conversation or a train of thought. Or to interrupt one.
  • You and your words have got to be clear and oh so organised. It looks easy when it’s done well, but don’t be fooled. A good text hierarchy means the writer has done the legwork so that busy people will see the most important things straight away.
  • Hard work pays off. Practice matters. Use the power of short sentences.

You have probably read all that before. You’ll see it anywhere where people are telling you what works on the screen; writing for websites, writing for content marketing, writing for apps. It’s all true and hugely important in those contexts – so we all need it now.

But strangely that’s not where I learned it. I learned it two decades ago and have been practicing it ever since. I learned it because I was writing interpretation panels – those bits of words and pictures you see at visitor attractions and which a lot of people don’t read. We discovered that these busy people with limited motivation and attention would read panels if they were written in a certain way. That certain way includes all those principles that now help people write good websites. We called it interpretive writing then, now I call it sharp writing.

This is where I learned to to write smart; words worth reading as part of a day out. (This is Lindisfarne, and the words are essentially about an empty grass field - but look at the smiles!)

This is where I learned to to write smart; devising words worth reading as part of a day out. (This is Lindisfarne, and the words are essentially about an empty grass field – but look at the smiles!)

‘Interpretive writing’ skills are far more important and far more widely applicable now than they have ever been. If you would like to gain practical skills and establish clear guidelines for interpretive writing you may be interested in ‘A Way with Words: Writing about places, writing for visitors’ which is a professional training course taking place on the 3rd November until the 6th November at the Snowdonia National Park Centre, Plas Tan y Bwlch. This course is organised by myself and James Carter, who is also a Fellow of the Association for Heritage Interpretation.

TellTale offer a range of in-house training and not just for attractions, so if ‘A Way with Words’ isn’t suitable for you please contact us and we can offer you something more tailored to your requirements.



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