We’re always looking for authors who describe new ways to think about the craft of writing. As an experienced teacher, editor, and writer, Carter Wiseman, author of Writing Architecture, is just the person for the job. We asked him to share some matter-of-fact tips from his book, for architects and students of architecture—and for writers in any field or genre.
What challenges and fears do individuals face when beginning to write, and how can they overcome them?
Most people—including architects and architecture students—have a completely appropriate fear of writing. Our brains do not work in full sentences and paragraphs, so trying to clarify our random thoughts in a way that others can understand is not “natural.” However, simply spewing out whatever is on our minds is not likely to make much sense to others; we can’t expect them to read our minds. Organizing the mental chaos and expressing it clearly takes work, and most of us would prefer to avoid it.
How can architects develop their own writing style and tone?
People who write about architecture often worry about style and tone. They also worry about a related issue: audience. Insecure writers tend to think that using big words and convoluted sentences conveys an impression of profundity. It doesn’t. What it does convey is that the writer has not thought the subject through sufficiently to make a direct statement. That is why so many in the profession rely on “archispeak,” using words likemateriality, discourse, and intervention when they could say materials, debate, or action. The best writers always use simple English. Their style and tone emerge naturally from their choice of words. Hemingway didn’t set out to write the way he did. He wrote that way because of who he was. Writers should not try to be what they are not.
What must architects consider about the built world to write persuasively and clearly about it?
To write persuasively and clearly about the built world, architects need to identify at the outset what it is they want to say. Writing rarely leads to thinking; thinking often leads directly to writing. Is the goal of a project to keep the rain out, or to inspire? Both are valid, but the reader (client, patron, critic, voter) should have no doubt about which is which.
Why is clear writing important for architects specifically?
Clear writing is important to every profession, but especially to architecture. The reason is that the stakes are so high. Architects make things that last a long time, and if those things are designed in response to a murky program or unclear specifications, the impact will be felt for years. An architect friend of mine once said he thought the greatest challenge of bad writing in the profession was not the difficulty of being understood, but the danger of being misunderstood.
Why did you write the book and what do you hope readers will gain from it?
I wrote Writing Architecture to give students and practitioners—as well as users—of architecture some ways to appreciate the value of the art, and therefore to advance it. Most clients are not trained to read architectural documents, so a floor plan is likely to seem mysterious. If an architect can write a proposal that convinces the client to go beyond mere building to create something uplifting, civilization takes a step forward.