On interviews and editors

Sorry for a two-headed post, but two ideas were fighting with each other and got all tangled up in each other’s business. They are related, at least in my mind, so bear with me…


Today was a very exciting day! We are working on a project with the Dutch kinetic sculptor Theo Jansen, of Strandbeest fame. Strandbeest! And since Theo was in Salem for the first time, we set aside part of the day to interview him about his initial impressions.

Setting up in East India Marine Hall with Chip and Corbett.
Setting up in East India Marine Hall with Chip and Corbett.

The curator, AV producer, and I sat down to come up with a list of interview questions that I would ask, since I’d done it before. Interviewing is one of those skills I picked up along the way by working with some really great interviewers over the years. It’s not easy to both maintain a conversational poise with someone, while remaining completely silent. So much of the infromation we use to gauge how a conversation is going comes from those small grunts and nods, and “Mm hmm”s that signal “I’m paying attention!” and “Yes, I hear you.” to the person talking. You have to learn to use your smile and eyes and body language (without getting in the way of the camera) to add those cues.

It’s also hard to focus on all that and keep your mind focused on the big picture. When you’re coaxing answers out of an interviewee, you get into a flow, questions lead to new questions, and it’s easy wander into very interesting, irrelevant territory.  So our division of labor for the shoot consisted of me doing the talking, Chip doing the shooting, and Trevor, the curator, keeping watch that the big picture goals for his project were met. If he had questions, he could feed them to me, and I could ask Theo. I missed something important, he could add that to the list. I’ve worn both hats, sometimes at the same time, and I definitely prefer not doing both. There’s an interesting parallel between this and writing and editing.

… and Editors

"Every Word Counts", Susan TImberlake's shiny new blog
“Every Word Counts”, Susan TImberlake’s shiny new blog

My former colleague  and good friend Susan Timberlake has just started a blog on museum writing and interpretation called “Every Word Counts” which you should subscribe to if you do any kind of writing. Susan’s one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with in 20+ years, and even after five years I still miss not having her in arm’s reach when I have a problem trying to say what I actually mean. If you’ve never worked with a good editor I pity you.

When I’m in the process of writing something, I find it hard to pull myself back up out of the words and paragraphs and remember what was the point of it all. Editing my own work becomes really difficult, and doing something like writing exhibit labels, where every single word counts, it can be excruciating. Ah, but when there’s an editor! Such a difference! All the fudge words I used, the sentences that don’t quite lead from one to the next, and the awkward phrasings get caught and marked up. Her probing questions and relentless focus on clarity would invariably lift the quality of my writing out of the slough it would normally wallow in. I quoted Orwell in a post some time ago about writing, who claimed that all writers were by nature lazy. I am guilty of that, as Susan could doubtless tell you. But it’s hard, too, to be defendant, judge and jury of your own work. I know lots of people hate having their work in progress read by others, but it is so much more efficient when it comes to crafting tight, hard prose.

So, if you’re interested in writing in a museum context, I imagine you’ll find Susan’s blog a useful one. The posts currently up are a mixture of case studies, examples of rewrites, and insights on writing and interpretation. I look forward to seeing what else she comes up with!



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