By Don Enright
For those of us who work as front-line interpreters, the chance to sink our teeth into an interpretive writing project can be equal parts exciting and terrifying. It can be so very rewarding to think that your work will be seen by hundreds or thousands of people; that it will be professionally edited; that it will have a graphic designer’s touch; that it will be printed on fine-quality paper or beautiful high-pressure laminate.
But there are big, scary challenges with interpretive writing, and one of the biggest is trying to define the scope of the project you’ve been given. Everybody has a different definition of what interpretive writing is, and you need to ask a lot of probing questions before you take on the work. Here’s what I try to ask:
1. By interpretive writing, do you mean interpretive planning? Do you want me to identify your target markets for you, define your project goals, set out a thematic framework, and figure out where this writing project fits in with your greater vision and mandate? Because that’s a lot of work, and it would be really helpful if you had some of that work done ahead of time.
2. By interpretive writing, do you mean research and writing? And if so, do you expect me to track down primary sources? Or do you mean word smithing, where you have a subject matter expert put together a set of source documents for me to write from? Because A is really time consuming, where B can be done on the quick.
3. By interpretive writing, do you mean writing and graphic design? Am I expected to lay it out, choose the fonts, find the images and so on? And who will do the fabrication and installation? Because that’s a lot of legwork, too.
Fortunately, you have a few tools at your disposal to help you take the bull by the horns and avoid wasting time faffing about with uncertainty.
First, ask for a project brief. It’s a standard project management tool that includes the goals or benefits of the project, a project timeline, an analysis of risks, constraints and assumptions, a task list and a responsibility assignment matrix.
“Now wait,” I hear you saying. “My boss would sooner sing opera on a unicycle than produce a project brief for me.”
I hear you. Managers sometimes have trouble assigning work clearly and efficiently. I don’t know why it’s such a problem to them, except that for a certain type of manager, parting with useful information somehow compromises their power and control.
So if that sounds like your boss/client, you’re going to have to write that project brief yourself. It doesn’t have to be onerous—it just takes a little time (and trust me, time spent clarifying a project at the beginning is going to be time, tears, and sleepless nights saved on the other end.)
As a freelancer, I do this all the time with my clients: “Would you like me to write up a little proposal and timeline? Then you can tell me how it fits in with your needs and schedule.” Boom. Done.
In that proposal, I’m always careful to write it in such a way that it highlights a) work I like to do and do well; b) timelines that I can actually achieve and c) contingencies (a little extra time and money) for things going wrong.
In my proposal, I break the work down into phases—even for a small project. It allows me to get things delivered early (thus thwarting my own procrastination), and to get feedback early. And I always subdivide each phase into three sections: a) input- what I need from my client; b) output- what I produce for you and c) outcome- what that effort is supposed to accomplish. I build in a feedback period after each phase, so the client (your manager) can sign off on the work before I get too far into the following phase.
If I’m expected to work as part of a team, I always include a responsibility assignment matrix. These are magical tools, particularly if you have a client/manager who has trouble delegating specific tasks to specific people. Simply write a task list down the left side of a table; put the team members across the top of the table; then for each task, assign each team member a role. These matrices are sometimes called RACIs, because in the matrix, someone is (R)esponsible for delivering the task; someone else (A)pproves the task; someone else is (C)onsulted, and perhaps someone is simply (I)nformed. Everyone has a role, and nobody is confused. (One of the most intelligent rules of project management is that you never assign the same task to two people. Can you imagine how much easier your life would be if your boss always followed that rule?)
I realize this sounds like a lot of left-brain, Type-A work for a writing assignment that should be creative and artistic and fun. But I find that it’s worth it. The creativity flows a whole lot better when I know exactly what is expected of me, and the feedback sessions tend to be a lot less stressful when I’m confident that I’m delivering exactly what is being asked.
I wish you every success with your interpretive writing project.
Google “project brief” and “creative brief” (not quite the same but related and useful.) Here are a couple of resources—
For technical jargon, species names, capitalizations, abbreviations and the like, you need to get to know Termium and its accompanying style guide, “The Canadian Style.” These may be the most under-used writing resources in Canada, and they rock.
Don Enright is a freelance interpretive planner and writer who works with parks, museums, and other heritage organizations to help them fulfil their missions and increase their relevance. Follow Don through his blog at www.donenright.com, or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.