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Guest expert feature - Together alone: why stories need a team

To celebrate the importance and value freelance consultants bring to our industry, and to give them a shout out especially during these uncertain times, Sarner is running a number of features submitted by experts from the freelancing world who we have had the pleasure to team up with over the years. This week we are pleased to share an article by Steven Swaby, an award-winning writer, creative developer, researcher, curator and editor.

Steven Swaby
In this photo  - Steven Swaby

Most writers will tell you theirs is, by definition, a solitary occupation. The process of writing – be it an exhibition, book, website or other medium – often boils down to the writer, alone in a room, hammering away at a keyboard for days on end. 

There’s truth in that of course. But my experiences over the past 20 years or so have taught me this valuable lesson: every writer needs a team. 

It’s something I’ve reflected on recently and, like many of us, I’ve had ample time for reflection in the past six months, during which time owning a 2020 diary has often seemed like a foolish extravagance. 

Because it’s only through teamwork that we create something special. Arguably the best exhibitions and attractions are all based on one common, core element: good storytelling. And for a writer to tell that story in the very best way, other skillsets and perspectives are essential ingredients. 

As a freelance writer I’ve relished opportunities to be out of my comfort zone, sometimes tackling subject matter I knew little or nothing about at the outset of the project. In recent years I’ve worked on an eclectic range of subjects, including industrial heritage, dinosaurs, plastic pollution, poets and painters, horseracing, the life of Nelson Mandela, ancient Iran and the future of transport engineering. That’s just a few examples. 

I’ve learned a lot. Including the benefits of having the right people on the journey to create and shape a narrative. For example, spending time with the inspiring subject experts who have such rich reservoirs of knowledge and enthusiasm, is always time well spent. By listening to them, by asking questions, testing ideas and angles, I often find the narrative hook, the key messages, and the reasons why that story should matter.

I also relish the experience of working with designers and tecchies. They bring creative mindsets to the table, plus the practical knowhow of bringing something to life beautifully and making it work effectively. They do clever things I cannot, and they see narrative in ways that I find incredibly useful. Physical and technical constraints can help keep a story’s feet on the ground but also make it fly. 

What starts life as a conversation and an idea on a page evolves, mutates and becomes a physical entity that offers visitors a meaningful experience. There’s magic in that, and it is magic created by a combination of talents. A special symbiosis that only teamwork can engender. The writer ignores that at their peril.

The painter and musician Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet to his mum) once said that ‘art is rearranging and grouping mistakes’. I think that’s valid as a wider truth about human creativity. We get to our destination by exploring. Sometimes we take a wrong turn, but that in itself can lead us to a deeper, unexpected discovery. For me, this can extend from the broadest narrative concept down to the filigree detail of finding the right word that makes a sentence sing. 

So yes, the process of writing does involve many hours of me alone, hammering away at that keyboard. But it also includes the invaluable ideas, guidance and knowledge of the people I’m working with. Because my words also shine when part of a greater whole, and the story I’m telling only reaches out and grabs if it’s part of an immersive, atmospheric and living space that transports people and enriches their lives. 

Right now I’d say we could all do with a bit more of that. 


About Steven Swaby

Steven is a creative developer, researcher, scriptwriter, curator and editor. He specialises in narrative creation and development – shaping themes and stories, and writing powerful, engaging content for a variety of audiences. 

A former Head of Interpretation at London's Natural History Museum, Steven has more than 20 years experience creating visitor attractions. Today he works internationally on an eclectic range of entertainment, science and cultural attractions. 

A past recipient of the BBC Wildlife Travel Writer of the Year Award, he is also a contributing author and editor of books on heritage, photography, art, wildlife and science – clients have included National Geographic, Mitchell Beazley and HarperCollins.

You can find him here: