4. Map Copy Is All About YOU

Type and Text

My favorite book to read before bed is “Words That Sell.” The title says it all: it’s a book full of word lists to use in different contexts to elicit different feelings and emotions from readers.

The idea, of course, is to use these words to sell something.

Words That Sell Book Cover

As a cartographer, you’re a salesperson. Your goal is to convince your map readers to “suspend their disbelief.” You want them to temporarily believe that your map represents reality — that your map is all there is to know. It’s how we get our map readers to focus on the message we’re communicating.

It’s easy to forget how important word choice and copy writing are when designing maps. However, carefully choosing your words and how you present text has as much an impact on a person viewing a map as the visuals.

Assuming most of you won’t be reading and memorizing the lists found in Words That Sell — though, I highly recommend this book! — here are some copy writing tips from the advertising industry.

These tips will will help you get your map reader’s attention, forcing them to focus on what you want them to remember from your map.

1. It’s all about “you”

For some reason, we rarely create maps that address our audience directly. Perhaps this is due to the fact that we think we’re being objective. (This is a myth. No map is objective!) The conventional wisdom is: if I use passive text on my map, I’m not taking a side in what’s being presented.

Conventional doesn’t equate with successful here.

Stop using passive language! Address your audience directly. People will engage more with communication that calls on them to participate. How do you do this? It’s really easy…

Use the word “you” when providing information in text boxes.

The words “you” and “your” should be sprinkled throughout the text. Every time you use the word “you,” a reader’s waning attention is snapped back to what they’re supposed to the reading task at hand.

This is a well-known trick in advertising. Next time you open a magazine, notice how many advertisements use the word “you” somewhere in their pitches. You’ll be amazed!

2. Address map readers directly and provide a call to action — Read This Map!

Chances are you’ve clicked on a web link with a title like this:

  • Cat Steals Car, You Won’t Believe What Happened Next
  • 5 Steps to Landing Your Dream Job
  • Wine lover? Why Increasing Raisin Prices Should Worry You

You’re not alone! But why do we do it? Why do we fall for click bait that takes us to pages full of annoying advertisements? There are three reasons.

  1. Each title has a certain, recently-discussed word in it — “you.”
  2. Each title induces you to take action or piques your interest so you’re clicking before you even have time to think
  3. People love lists — hence 3, 5, or 7 Reasons…

If you want a map user to totally engage with your message, take a page out of the advertising handbook.

Address your map user directly and give them a call to action of some sort. Several example titles below:

  • Live on the Coast? Why You’ll Want to Move within 20 Years // map on sea level rise
  • You Should Feel Sick: 3 Deadly Contaminants in Your Drinking Water // a county-wide map of well water quality
  • How Your Produce Makes Its Way into Your Fridge // a map of different types of produce transportation networks

3. Shorter sentences are always better

People prefer readability over everything else: detail, grammar… readability matters.

Keep your sentences succinct. Short. To the point. Don’t feel the need to use complete sentences.

Use apostrophes. People who read your maps will not care? No! People won’t care!

Even if you’re writing something extremely scientific, less is more. Don’t use run-on sentences. Don’t use numerous conjunctions.

Obviously, your client and intended audiences matters. If you’re working for the Defense Department, don’t go nuts breaking their conventions. If you’re designing maps for a local Literary Guild, you may want to follow all rules of grammar.

But if you really want your maps to resonate with a large, public audience, you should learn to let loose. Shorten things. And end a sentence with a preposition once in a while.

4. Superfluous description can be amazing

As an academic this took some convincing. I’m now convinced.

Use exciting adjectives and adverbs to keep your map readers engaged. Superfluous description rules!

The words “amazing,” “magical,” and “guaranteed” are proven to engage readers. It doesn’t matter the educational background, these kinds of words work to spark interest and emotional responses from your readers. Use them when applicable.

5. Long paragraphs kill your readers

If you want to make sure someone doesn’t read your text, put it in a long paragraph.

Studies have shown that, outside of essays and novels, text in long paragraphs doesn’t get read as frequently as the same exact text broken down into shorter paragraphs.

Try to keep your paragraphs to less than five lines. Three or four is better. And shorter paragraph widths are much preferred — particularly on the web.

Ditch that old adage about paragraphs needing topic sentences. People reading a map are not going to be critiquing your paragraph complexity. They want the text chunked logically, but regularly broken up.

Keep checking back, as I will probably add more tips and some example visuals to this post in the near future! :-)


I used the word “you” or “your” 58 times in this blog post. That’s 58 times I addressed… you! It truly does make writing more engaging. (Now 61 times… but whose counting. ;-)