Sci/Why wanted to know what it was like to work on those materials, so we asked some experts to tell us about it. What follows came out of interviews with three writers from Canada and the United States who specialize in writing for science centres and museums.
How Writers Write Content for MuseumsThe writers and editors don’t have to have all the knowledge, they just have to know where to find it. Sometimes they get to work with subject experts—scientists and researchers—one-on-one to gather info. Other times they read what experts wrote, to gather facts to share with the public.
“It’s really an exercise in cutting,” said Kimberly Moynahan, to make the expert knowledge fit on a very short panel. She works on exhibits for the likes of the Ontario and Saskatchewan science centres in Canada. Panels explaining exhibits can be super short. “A whole panel might be 60 words. And you’re going to explain fusion,” she said. “What really are the key messages? Everything you write has to add more information. You never repeat anything, because you don’t have room for that.”
“It’s super important to keep it fun,” Moynahan said. “We try to get kids to engage with other parts of the room or activities by challenging them with questions: Can you think of something bigger than an elephant? How many equilateral triangles do you see? Hint, look at the windows.”
Imagine these panels on the wall beside an exhibit: “There’s a big header with question on it, then underneath that, a bold sentence with the secondary information. Beneath that, there might be one or two big sentences not quite as bold, then a paragraph of two to three sentences. A lot of people will only read the headers,” Moynahan explained.
Who the Museum Writers Target Audience IsWhen editing words the public will read, “I often have to eliminate a lot of jargon,” said Sara Scharf, editor in paleontology for materials at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. “I try to write for a grade 6 reading level or so.”
Aiming for that 11- or 12-year-old visitor is key, agrees Moynahan. “We might have some messaging for adults,” she said. “But the general audience for tone, language, and facts hit that middle school audience. That age group is the bulk of visitors—with schools coming through.”
Maggie Goodman is writing for younger kids (grades 3–5) because her work at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry in the USA was for a science club as well as a summer program at the public libraries. “Language needs are very important when we’re looking through to make sure things work,” Goodman said. She also considers what kids are interested after 5 pm (outside of school hours).
The Museum Writers' Reference ShelfFor the facts, the experts on the team are the writers’ most important resource. For the other parts, writers look to school curriculum (available online by province) to find words and ideas that are familiar to kids. Museums and science centres love to teach visitors new things. Knowing what the visitors might already be familiar with helps them build on and extend that knowledge, taking visitors from the familiar to the unfamiliar, and on to new reaches of knowledge. In the USA, Goodman refers to the Next Generation Science Standards that outlines the progression of scientific concepts and depth of understanding across the grade levels.
For checking the use and style of science jargon, writers ask their experts, and check books like Scientific Style and Format and AP Stylebook, and science dictionaries as well as standard school curriculum, and reputable websites. (Also see our article on science vocabulary by grade.)
The Museum Writers' BackgroundWriters and editors working in a niche often know something about the topic beforehand, but sometimes their expertise is primarily in language. Scharf has a PhD in the history and philosophy of biology and Moynahan has a degree in zoology. Goodman has a background in educational development, but not in science. Sometimes not being a subject expert can help the editor or writer put themselves in the public’s shoes. They have to write materials that can be understood by visitors who are completely new to the subject, after all.
Moynahan says that her training as a scientist helps her a lot: “It’s helped our design team that I can do some of the research so they don’t have to farm it out. I already have a basic understanding and know what to Google. Most of the time, what you’re writing is not deep science. It’s very helpful to have a science background because you have to pull from three pages and get a story arc onto three [60-word] panels.” The scientists like working with her, she says, because “I can talk with research scientists who are truly expert in the field, and understand [them] enough that they don’t really have to explain [the science].”
What Museum Writers Want You to KnowMoynahan wants others to know “the fact that it is a career path for a writer. It never occurred to me as a freelancer that there is work [for us in museums].”
“There is that false idea that there’s a gatekeeper to understanding science and liking science,” Goodman said. “We are really trying to tear that down at the Museum of Science and Industry. I’m really proud that there’s a universal ownership to science learning and exploration that’s occurring. Everybody has that on a daily basis, they’re just often not doing that in the terms that are used in a STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] setting.”
“I like looking at the same material from multiple angles, helping to bring cutting-edge research to a broader audience,” Scharf said. “And the challenge of doing so in a variety of voices and registers.”
Do you remember an exhibit whose writing really stood out? Did you ever think about being on that creative team? Did you learn something when writing an exhibit that you’d like to share? Leave a comment and tell us about it.