6 Ways To Write About Preservation So Someone Will Care

Two years ago the Preservation Communications team here at History Colorado put out a press release about a Multiple Property Documentation Form for historic sites along the Santa Fe Trail.  We were very excited about the significance of this milestone. Hooray! we said. This is great press for preservation! we said.

A few days later a journalist contacted us: “I smell something important here about history or research efforts along the Santa Fe Trail, but it is buried in so much jargon that it’s hard for me to translate.” Our mission to inspire people to care about the Santa Fe Trail was a big, fat FAIL. That’s when we knew it was time for a change.

Historic preservation, like any field, has its own set of complicated, cumbersome jargon, and our academic programs specifically breed that jargon into us, without offering a ton of alternative opportunities. It’s not their fault; part of what we do as preservationists is write architectural descriptions, conditions assessments, statements of significance for National Register nominations, and other jargon-heavy documents. But this stuff isn’t always riveting. Needless to say, we don’t come out of school as Hemingways.

The good news is that we can change that! After spending years evaluating what works and what doesn’t in preservation communications, my team and I have come up with six tips on writing about preservation so someone will care. Give ‘em go, and leave comments to let us know your thoughts.

1. When you write about preservation, don’t write about preservation.

The coolest thing about historic preservation is how connected it is to, well, everything, and most people don’t realize its relevancy. Architecture, archaeology, city planning, community revitalization, environmental sustainability, economic development, agriculture, heritage tourism, urban migration, manmade landscapes, natural landscapes, spatial relationships, healthy communities, strong schools, gender and domestic social politics, locally sourced materials...all of these have ties to what we do.

There are literally thousands of things you can write about that promote historic preservation without talking directly about preservation, which we all know can be a snoozefest for many. Find a way to integrate preservation into that snazzy, applicable topic instead of inserting that topic into a story about preservation.

Mount Vernon Ladies Association

For many, the term “historic preservation” still conjures images of early preservationists, like the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, pictured here. Finding creative ways to communicate is a great way to show that preservationists come in all shapes and sizes, young and old.

Don’t get me wrong—it’s not that the term “historic preservation” is in and of itself offensive or that we’re trying to hide what we do, but unfortunately, the term is not pervasive enough yet in our society for the general public to understand how relevant it is. For many, the term “historic preservation” is the same thing as environmental conservation or art restoration. If they do understand that preservation is about man-made buildings and places, the term “historic preservation” might still evoke images of little old ladies wearing lace and petticoats at a rally outside of Mount Vernon. Once we’ve made the term commonplace, we can use it all we want. But we’re just not there yet.

2. Find the best medium for your topic.

Before And After

Most people love before and after photos, which is great because we, as a field, have access to a lot of them! Think hard: Is your story better told through photos?

In today’s internet culture, there are dozens of ways to share information that may be more effective than an article. Can your topic be better expressed through a video? What about a photo essay? Can you tell your story just as strongly through a series of Instagram photos or Vines? You scoff, but in an age when pictures can tell many more than 1,000 words, social media may just be the best way to get your message out there.

If you find that the written word is still the best way to express your thoughts, consider presenting them in different format, like a list or a series of shorter, mini-articles to keep your audience coming back. Not only might it garner more interest (Everyone loves lists! Just ask Buzzfeed.) but as an author, you save time avoiding the nuances of writing traditional articles, like creating paragraph transitions and topic sentences.

3. Expose the human story behind your story.

Other preservationists may enjoy your detailed review of brick repointing or window reglazing, but rest assured, they’re the only ones. But what is interesting to the masses is the story of who used to live in the building that has the newly reglazed windows. Who was that person? Why did they live there? What does the building teach us about the former inhabitants? How has the building been altered over time as a result of or to reflect social changes? If the human element in your story isn’t easily apparent, dig deeper—no excuses! You can find an interesting way to weave humanity through your story, even if your starting point is something as dull as building materials.

Mullen Building

Before Temple Buell designed this magnificent building at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Denver, he was a patient there after he developed tuberculosis from mustard gas poisoning during World War I. The story of the man behind the architecture shows us that the building represents so much more than just great brickwork. Find the human story behind your building, and you’ll captivate your readers.

Case in point: Golden, Colorado. Most know Golden as the homes of Coors, but Golden was first the capital of the Colorado Territory. Local citizens were outraged when Golden wasn’t automatically deemed the state capital during Colorado’s quest for statehood. Actively competing with Denver (the other primary candidate for the capital seat), Golden ramped up production on brick-made buildings to demonstrate its sophistication and industrial capability. Though the city eventually lost to Denver, Golden’s brickmaking industry thrived for nearly a century. The story of Golden shows that sometimes even a brick is more than a brick—it can be a symbol for a community’s history, tenacity, and hard work.

Find the human interest story behind your story, and I can guarantee you, not only will your reader appreciate your message more, but you as an author will discover more meaningful connections in your own experience with place.

4. Question if you’re the best person to tell the story.

I know, I know, we all love to see our name in print, and giving up that high can be tough. But sometimes we just don’t carry enough weight to tell the story we want to tell. In the last few years, Jack White, Ben Folds, and Lupita Nyong’o are just three celebrities who have spoken out in favor of preservation, and it’s drawn much more publicity to these sites than we ever could have on our own as a field. But finding the right author for your story doesn’t have to mean tracking down a celebrity.

Lupita Nyong'o Instagram

Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o has spoken out to save Shockoe Bottom in Richmond. Images from Lupita Nyong’o’s Instagram.

You may want to write an article about preserving a historic theater, but consider how powerful the story might be coming from an enthusiastic young film student who is looking to reinstate a local appreciation for the arts. A few months ago, I wanted to write an article about the importance of preserving the former home of Dr. Justina Ford, Denver’s first licensed African American female doctor. Jazzed about it, I casually mentioned the idea to my intern, Jade, and her face lit up: Dr. Ford had delivered her father and two uncles, and her grandmother still spoke fondly of the experience, remembering how kind Dr. Ford was to her during labor. What an amazing personal connection to this place! I knew then that this wasn’t a story for me to tell—it belonged to Jade.

Letting go of ego and personal investment in an idea can create for much stronger and more emotional storytelling. Plus, it’s another great opportunity for us to get non-preservationists to tell preservation stories, demonstrating again how widely applicable preservation is to the general public.

5. Do not - I repeat - do not use preservation jargon.

Cosmos Neil deGrasse Tyson

Physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson won our hearts and minds by making the re-boot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos relatable to even the densest science-enthusiasts.

Criterion C. Multiple Property Documentation Form. Section 106 review and compliance. (I can hear you groaning from here.) Every industry has its jargon, and preservation is no exception. If you learn only one thing from me, learn this: these terms have no place in your writing! Regularly wading through a sea of regulatory acronyms and phrases, we forget that the words of preservation are not mainstream. Even terms like “built environment” and “historic integrity” aren’t as widely understood as you might think. When you’re editing your work, think critically about what you’ve written. Give it to a friend who knows nothing about preservation, and ask her to mark where she loses interest and stops reading. You might be surprised.

Need inspiration? Be the Neil deGrasse Tyson of preservation. I am embarrassed by the amount of things I didn’t know about our universe until I watched Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey this summer. If Tyson talked about physics in the way that felt natural to him, we’d dismiss him as another nerdy science guy blurting beeps and boops and intergalactic nonsense. But he found a way to get on our level, and it worked. Let’s follow his lead.

6. Don’t get defensive.

Historic preservation in the United States is not that old—the National Historic Preservation Act itself is still one year away from being historic—so it’s no surprise that we tend to get a bit defensive about our field. We’ve created matrices to quantify subjective ideas like significance, and we spout governmental policies like it’s our job (...because it’s our job) so we can show that our field is a legitimate one. I admit, every time a patron calls asking if they can add their building to “that list,” I want to say, “Hey! This is a big industry! Who do you think you are! You can’t just put the building on the list! Don’t you know it requires research and forms and time?!”

But ultimately, who are we trying to impress? And why?

National Historic Preservation Act posters

The National Historic Preservation Act isn’t even fifty years old yet, but that doesn’t mean we have to legitimize our field through complicated jargon!

Taking out jargon from our writing, presenting ideas in Buzzfeed-style lists, commissioning non-preservationists to write about preservation—it might seem like I’m suggesting you dumb it down in order to get a bigger audience, and let me clear: Under no circumstances do I recommend dumbing down anything; no reader likes to be patronized. But preservation is a creative field masquerading as a regulatory one, and by changing the way we communicate about it, we can show people that we’re not lace-cladden old ladies or government swine trying to take over their property.

We all know that historic preservation is one of strongest tools for rebuilding our nation. We’re on the forefront of the new America, putting local issues into the hands of communities themselves, reviving the American small city, and creating places that welcome human interaction, instead of discouraging them. We are it, and it is now.

Don’t let your words put them to sleep—it’s time we woke them up.