Writers on Writing, or Why I love Eric and Theodor

As part of my plans for the interpretive writing workshop I did at NEMA last week, I was going to have a presentation of inspirational quotes and handy bullet points on writing.  I find those kind of short, succinct points go over well when you’re getting ready to settle down into an intense task like revising a text.  Luckily for everyone involved, I realized that the time and format really didn’t allow for spending time looking at slides. But having gathered quotes from some of my favorite authors, I couldn’t put them down, so they’ve turned into a post on exhibit writing and being a writer.

Having backed into a writing career, it took me a long time to get to the point where I could reflect on the motivations and characteristics of being a writer. Looking for examples in literature of writers describing how they worked has been a valuable tool to examine my own writing process. My two favorite writers who wrote about writing are an odd couple – the novelist Eric Blair (whose pen name was George Orwell) and the German social theorist Theodor Adorno. They represent poles of thinking about writing that I often oscillate between – clarity versus precision.

Orwell was a vigorous opponent of decorative, showy writing. “Good prose is like a windowpane.” Orwell said.  The writer’s job is to get the right words down on the page and disappear from the text. In Why I Write, he says, “One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.” In his descriptions of Newspeak in 1984, you can see his contempt for the bureaucratic tendency to turn prose into propaganda, and fill up space with meaningless words.  When I’m meetings where people talk about “impactful leveraging of core competencies” I like to imagine Orwell bursting in and spanking them with a dead fish. Simplify, clarify, simplify.

Adorno, a giant of the Frankfurt School, had a completely different interest; precision, saying exactly what you meant and nothing more or less. His English (and German) prose can be hard to get through, because every noun and verb, every modifier, has been carefully chosen.  You skip a word at your peril, and I often have to go back over the sentence I’ve just read because some word has slowed me down or stopped me and sent me running for the dictionary.  Adorno probably wouldn’t mind that I needed a dictionary to get through his prose, if  I was learning what he was trying to tell me. The author’s job is get his or her point across.  Adorno says in Minima Moralia, “The writer ought not acknowledge any distinction between beautiful and adequate expression. He should neither suppose such a distinction in the solicitous mind of the critic, nor tolerate it in his own. If he succeeds in saying entirely what he means, it is beautiful.” He seems to echo the words of R. Buckminster Fuller, another big man in my personal pantheon, who said, “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” This has been my quote of choice when I’m prototyping a new exhibit, but it applies to writing just as well. A label that doesn’t read well can’t be right.

Writers and critics who like needlessly dense prose (I’m looking at you, critical theorists), often cite Adorno as their answer to what they see as Orwellian oversimplification . For them, if you can’t use the words you like to say what you mean, then you can’t say it well. And if only your colleagues can understand you, that’s OK. But Adorno is very careful to distinguish precision from pretension, “There is a duty to clarify all difficulties that result merely from esoteric complacency. Between the desire for a compact style adequate to the depth of its subject matter, and the temptation to recondite and pretentious slovenliness, there is no obvious distinction: suspicious probing is always salutary.” Boo yah! Whenever I’m tempted to be recondite and pretentiously slovenly in my writing, I can picture him menacing me with a hardcover volume of Kant.

So what does this have to do with label writing?

Everything! In the bizarre craft of writing exhibit labels, Orwell and Adorno are like the daemons that sit on your shoulders, yelling into your ears to clarify, to be more precise, to be less jargony, be more ruthless in cutting.  In the end, they are both advocating that writers be more conscious, more careful, and more critical in their craft.

Take your time

The first time I worked with Judy Rand, she laid out my writing schedule for me and I almost burst out laughing when she told me it’d take me eight hours to write a good two paragraph label, and four hours to write a simple artifact ID. I soon learned better, though.  We had a very concrete sets of goals and messages that we trying to convey with every label in the exhibition, and it wasn’t long before I found myself lying on the floor of my study with my list of the two labels I was supposed to have done that day, a zillion crumpled up drafts that didn’t say what I wanted, were too long or too vague, and five or six versions that came close but quite make it.  And if I got those two done, I’d felt like I’d gotten a good day’s work in.  Good writing takes time.

Don’t be a baby

When we got to label review part of the process of this same job, Judy sent me a postcard with a picture of a woman modeling lingerie at a fancy party where everybody else is in evening wear. “This is what writing for others feels like.” she was saying. You feel naked, exposed, and open to being ridiculed by everybody else. Writing is hard work, and in the midst of any writing project bigger in scope than a short letter, I’ll go through bouts of self-doubt and angst.  Getting past that pain to actually finish something is hard work. Here, both authors have some tough love for writers. Orwell says of authors, himself included, “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery… Writing … is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” Adorno is even more forthright, “The demand that one harden oneself against self-pity implies the technical necessity to counter any slackening of intellectual tension with the utmost alertness, and to eliminate anything that has begun to encrust the work.” Suck it up. Stop sighing about how hard it is and get cracking!

Don’t just move stuff around. Revise!

When I was an undergraduate, computers were still rare enough that I typed most of my papers on a little portable typewriter. Many were the pages I was forced to retype because I made an error on the last line. Text editing is so much more forgiving! The joy of being able to cut and paste, move chunks of text around, it never gets old.  It also makes it easier to be flabby, though. Pushing the pieces around becomes an end unto itself, and the after the initial burst of writing, I get stuck in my half-baked paragraphs, interesting phrases, and big ideas. Adorno describes this process beautifully, “In his text, the writer sets up house. Just as he trundles papers, books, pencils, documents untidily from room to room, he creates the same disorder in his thoughts. They become pieces of furniture that he sinks into, content or irritable. He strokes them affectionately, wears them out, mixes them up, re-arranges, ruins them.” Long before I discovered Adorno, one of my rules of writing was, “The more you monkey with it, the more it sucks.”

Adorno says, “Nothing should be thought worthy to exist simply because it exists, has been written down. When several sentences seem like variations on the same idea, they often only represent different attempts to grasp something the author has not yet mastered. Then the best formulation should be chosen and developed further.” You’ve been there, I bet; that moment when you realize you’ve spent hours cutting and pasting and rearranging and you like the result less than what you started with. For me it usually means I’m too in love with what I’ve written, or I’m too lazy to abandon words already on screen, and it’s time to start over.

Cut, cut, cut

When I first accepted the invitation to run a writing workshop, I thought about all the times I’ve coached people who were new to interpretive writing. The hardest lesson is almost always learning to be succinct.  Especially for really smart, really knowledgeable people, the desire to share everything they’ve learned about the subject at hand, can be almost insurmountable.  To write well, you have to invest a bit of yourself in believing that what you’re writing is worth writing about, but our particular kind of writing imposes strict limits on what you can you write. Visitors in a free-choice environment like a museum are not reading a book. Numerous studies have shown that visitors make determinations about whether they’ll engage with labels based on their impression of the total amount of text in an area.  Lots of six paragraph labels will ensure that visitors won’t read those labels, AND any other labels around them.  Not to worry. Adorno comes to the rescue, “It is part of the technique of writing to be able to discard ideas, even fertile ones, if the construction demands it.” Interpretive writing demands it more than any kind of writing I can think of.

If it’s so hard, why do we do it?

Rather than attempt to answer that, I’ll leave you with Eric and Theodor and let them speak for me.  Orwell writes, “Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

1             Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, … It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one.

2            Æsthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.

3            Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

4            Political purpose. —Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude. “

He ends with, “I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I … was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”

Adorno, though noted for his dense (even by German standards) prose, allows himself a description of good writing that is marvelously lyrical, “Properly written texts are like spiders’ webs: tight, concentric, transparent, well-spun and firm. They draw into themselves all the creatures of the air. Metaphors flitting hastily through them become their nourishing prey. Subject matter comes winging towards them. … Where thought has opened up one cell of reality, it should, without violence by the subject, penetrate the next… In the light it casts on its chosen substance, others begin to glow.”

Orwells’s “Why I Write” and Adorno’s “Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life” #51 are both short texts that get inside the process of being a writer trying to turn ideas into words and words into narrative. I recommend them both to you.


  1. Thank you for this post! I’m currently taking a Writing for Museums class at Seton Hall and this helped to both further solidify and elaborate on the points my professor has been making all semester. Writing for museums and exhibitions is hard and these are all great tips I plan to keep close at hand.


  2. I assume you saw the piece on label writing for the new MFA wing in the Boston Globe? Amazing that they covered this – and they did it well. (BTW Ed: this is about Ben Weiss – the person I’ve been saying I’ll introduce you to one of these days.) Here’s the link: http://www.boston.com/ae/theater_arts/articles/2010/11/14/5000_labels_for_5000_artworks_that_was_benjamin_weisss_job/

    And the ipod touch tour I worked on for the MFA is up and running! (Also did videos for the interactive touch tables.)


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