Writing about art? Don’t pee down both legs.

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Having worked with a few architects, I’m always excited to tell their stories. Buildings have lives, narratives and quite often, unseen drama.

When working with architects and designers to tell the story of their design, there are a few key lessons to remember.

William Zinsser, a writer for the New York Herald Tribune and writing teacher at Yale and then Columbia, wrote one of the essential books on writing, On Writing Well. In his chapter on writing about art, Zinsser distills a lifetime of experience reading others’ writing about art into four points.

#1 Critics should like or better still love the thing they write about. Foregoing my usual selectiveness, I took the first architecture client that came to me. That’s because I love the stuff. Ever since I visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses in Chicago and toured the Vanderbilt’s Breakers in Rhode Island as a kid, I was hooked. Reading Patrick Nuttgens’ The Story of Architecture was one of the worst ways to fall asleep and one of the best ways to get inspired.

#2 Don’t give away too much. The task is to entice and invite, not exhaust. When writing about architecture, you want to nurture a desire to see the building. You must save some of the drama for the in person experience. A few years back, I had the chance to travel to Europe and the first place on my list was Florence since I read G.F. Young’s The Medici. Young scratched an itch that would not settle until I had seen Ghiberti’s doors and Brunelleschi’s dome.

#3 Use specific detail. A dangerous temptation when viewing grand things is to describe them the way you first see them: from far off. On an architectural tour of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles years ago, the docent explained the main building’s surface was divided into square’s so people could appreciate it’s size and scale relative to them. Details are how we translate massive objects into the mental images and sensory impressions that are the basis of memories. And we want our writing to be memorable.

#4 Avoid the ecstatic adjectives. Zinsser’s final point is vital. Big words are a lazy way to express something complex. When writing about architecture, describe the building’s purpose, contribution and significance, but do it with simple and relatable words.

Zinsser ends the chapter with a final reminder to make sure you take a view on the art you write about. To make his point he shares about the newspaper’s daily pitch meetings with his Texan editor. Zinsser respected the editor because “he had no pretense and hated undue circling around a subject.”

When writers were tempted to argue both sides of an issue, his editor would have none of it.

Well,” the man from Texas would break in, “let’s not go peeing down both legs.”

It was a plea he made often, and it was the most inelegant advice I ever received. But over a long career of writing reviews and columns and trying to make a point I felt strongly about, it was also probably the best.


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