Someday you’ll be writing a story about an event, say, a trade show or a conference, and you’ll notice someone walking in front of you picking up everything available. When you look closer, you’ll discover she’s gathering anything with a picture, logo, map, diagram, or list on it. Congratulations, you’re about to meet one of my students, who’s doing something we call “vacuuming.”
The swag has two audiences and two purposes. It’s for the writer to help make the story visual, and it’s for graphics people to use for illustration.
Most writers can’t draw and forget their camera, so they have trouble taking notes on visual things, such as the layout of rooms, details of machines, arrangements of objects, or the look of art works. If you don’t take notes on things, you’ll have trouble recalling them later when you need them. Visual materials spark your memory, and allow precise description. And if you’re working online, you need original objects for illustration, not just downloaded video, which may or may not fit.
Sometimes you can’t take objects with you, so take a picture or a photocopy of it. You don’t necessarily need a good copy if you’re only using it for notetaking. Ask people sitting nearby if you can get a copy elsewhere. Here’s a little secret for you: most people sitting behind tables in the halls of hotels want you to carry stuff off so they don’t have to lug it back to their office.
You also bring things back for graphic artists to turn into visuals. My Poynter colleague Pegie Stark Adam taught me not to worry about the condition of stuff; artists can do magic with almost anything. Matchbook with a coffee stain on it; no problem. Half a map, no sweat. Just bring it back.
If possible, brainstorm with the graphics people, explaining what you want to say and how. Because they don’t think like you, they come up with terrific ideas. Think for a moment about trying to describe the uniform of a Vatican Swiss guard in words. Piece of cake with one photo or a drawing. Graphic artists can save you and your readers many hard paragraphs.
So vacuum the scene and lug it all back. Such treasures will make your stories rich.
[Got any anecdotes about bringing back visual materials?]