One Writer’s Guide to Writing–Jon Kohl (Costa Rica)

Theme Writer’s Field Guide
How to Write a Strong Theme from Big Idea to Presentation
By Jon Kohl (Costa Rica 1993-95)
InterpPress Publisher
164 pages
$25.00 (paperback)
November 2018


The interpretive theme is the most important sentence an interpreter inks on paper. Despite its centrality to thematic interpretation, no single work has dedicated itself entirely to the art and craft of strong theme writing until now. The Interpretive Theme Writer’s Field Guide builds on Sam Ham’s 30-year thematic interpretation research legacy. While leaving theory to his books, this pocket companion offers writers strong theme examples, worksheets, exercises, inspirational quotes, and technique highlights.

Where Does This Field Guide Come From?

 Jon Kohl (Costa Rica 1993-95) tells us:

When the US Peace Corps assigned me in 1993 to my new Costa Rican office at the aging Simon Bolivar National Zoo and Botanical Garden in order to co-build its education department, my new boss Luisa dropped Interpretación

Jon Kohl

Ambiental on my desk and informed me that interpretation was now part of my new job. I hadn’t heard of environmental interpretation before or the amusingly named fellow who wrote the book. I quickly came to understand, nonetheless, that rhyme and all, Sam Ham was the only one who could teach me, although remotely, about interpretation in that venerable bar-and-cement zoo in downtown San José.

Years later, many interpretation books grace my office shelf, yet interpreters including myself still find little support to carry out the central act of interpretive theme writing. Sam’s 2013 sequel, Interpretation: Making a Difference on Purpose, dedicates an entire chapter to crafting strong interpretive themes and offers seven proven guidelines for doing so. But the focus of the book is farther reaching than just theme writing. To date, no single volume in any language has devoted itself entirely to the transformation of its readers into theme writers. In short, that void this Field Guide fills.

Little did I know that years earlier I had already been preparing myself to write this pocket field assistant, which in hindsight now seems like an inevitable outcome of my journey. I say this because my writing career germinated in fifth-grade when I won a town-wide evaluation/contest in fiction writing. Jump to high school, when I founded our literary magazine and edited our school newspaper at the same time. Once I arrived at Dartmouth College, I joined the literary magazine, wrote for the same humor magazine that Dr. Seuss once edited, wrote opinions for the school newspaper, and interned at the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, Oceanus magazine of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Greenpeace Magazine in Washington, D.C. I even founded Sense of Place, the very first formatted e-magazine (Hypercard) transmitted over an electronic network in the history of the Internet, a historical feat long since forgotten in the fast-evolving world of smart phones and database hacks.

Over the years, I have written scores of trade, popular, and academic articles, training manuals, and creative writing pieces (including Fallout, a near-future sci-fi romance published in 2013) in both English and Spanish. Unbeknownst to anyone but my fortune teller, I had also been training myself for a career in interpretation. After being hired in 1997 by RARE Center for Tropical Conservation to become a nature guide trainer in Central America, I began writing what today would be dozens of articles about interpretation, including a column in NAI’s Legacy magazine called the “International Interpreter” under then-editor Alan Leftridge. My first article on theme writing came in 2004 in Legacy called “Mighty Messages Make Memorable Presentations,” which Sam would later cite in his book and use in his workshops. I would continue writing about themes in my blog, “International Heritage Interpretation” ( interpretation).

In addition to writing, I have been an interpretive trainer in numerous countries in the Americas developing a holistic training model aimed at promoting real social development. I have also been an interpretive planner at sites in the US and abroad.

As I deepened my involvement in the interpretation field, it became clear that despite various attempts (for example, National Park Service’s Interpretive Development Program), the field has not enjoyed a commonly defined set of basic skills, including theme writing, and at the time of this writing in 2018, the debate about interpretive performance standards rages on. So, the timing of this Field Guide may be appropriate and, with any luck, contribute to standards that emerge.

While Sam’s books establish the scientific rationale for why thematic communication is necessary and outline a practical foundation for theme writing, the document in your hands is really the first of its kind to dedicate itself wholeheartedly to the art and craft of interpretive theme writing. Likewise, Beverly Serrell writes a full chapter on “Big Ideas” for exhibits, and Alan Leftridge penned a book on interpretive writing, but neither addresses the integral nature of why and how to write the most important sentences an interpreter may ever have to ink on paper. Many other writers touch on the theme of themes, yet their examples suffer weakness by this pocketbook’s standards and many of the same “experts” continue to confuse themes and topics (as differentiated in Sam’s first book, Environmental Interpretation). None provide models of how this Field Guide envisions a strong theme to be, based on Sam’s two fundamental criteria of provocation power.

The Field Guide further makes what I consider a novel addition to interpretation literature by recognizing that themes arise not just from keyboards of individual interpreters, educators, and interpretive planners, but also from teams of these people and even by communities within a larger social process. The PUP Global Heritage Consortium, of which I humbly serve as director, has rescued the 1936 National Park Service concept of a “thematic framework” and evolved it into a participatory, community-based form of heritage self-expression that produces interpretive themes both reflecting heritage values of their heritage “owners” as well as marking the boundaries for any kind of subsequent interpretive planning.

Ultimately the Interpretive Theme Writer’s Field Guide did not begin spinning wheels until 2015 when the National Association for Interpretation allowed me the space to hold a webinar on Strong Theme Writing. In that moment, I differentiated the concepts of Big Ideas and a vehicle to deliver them that about equates to Sam’s Relevance and Ease of Processing as the twin towers of provocation power, the essence of strong theme writing. After that webinar, which enjoyed considerable participation, the idea of the Field Guide finally emerged as a viable and desirable evolution of Sam’s work as well as of interpretation literature in general.

After Jon finished his tour in ’95, he married a Costa Rican woman whom he met while at the National Zoo. He writes, “when I arrived at the National Zoo it was an old, decrepit bar-and-steel zoo badly in need of educational programming. I was in Peace Corps’s environmental education program.). I had two kids born here in Costa Rica where I am now a dual citizen, so I am constantly reliving my Peace Corps experience, likely for the rest of my life.”

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