Part 6: Visual communication
A picture is worth a thousand words, as the old saying goes. Sometimes, despite writing clearly and concisely, it can be helpful to your audience if you use supporting graphics–whether that be tables, illustrations, maps, photos, charts, or some other type of other visual aid.
Before getting into details on creating, formatting, and incorporating graphics, consider the types and their functions. You can use graphics to represent the following elements in your writing:
- Objects — If you’re describing a fuel-injection system, you’ll probably need a drawing or diagram of the thing. If you are explaining how to graft a fruit tree, you’ll need some illustrations of how that task is done. Photographs, drawings, diagrams, and schematics are the types of graphics that show objects.
- Numbers — If you’re discussing the rising cost of housing in Vancouver, you could use a table with the columns being for five-year periods since 1970; the rows could be for different types of housing. You could show the same data in the form of bar charts, pie charts, or line graphs. Tables, bar charts, pie charts, and line graphs are some of the principal ways to show numerical data.
- Concepts — If you want to show how your company is organized, such as the relationships of the different departments and officials, you could set up an organization chart, which is boxes and circles connected with lines showing how everything is hierarchically arranged and related. This would be an example of a graphic for a concept; this type depicts nonphysical, conceptual things and their relationships.
- Words — Graphics can be used to depict words. You’ve probably noticed how some textbooks may put key definitions in a box, maybe with different color in the background. The same can be done with key points or extended examples.
Just as you would cite and reference a paraphrase or a direct quote, so too must you cite and reference any graphics that you use that were created by someone else or that were based on someone else’s data. Indicate the source of any graphic or data you have borrowed. Whenever you borrow a graphic or data from some other source, document that fact in the figure title using an in-text citation. You should also include the reference information in the reference list.
Guidelines for using graphics
Use graphics whenever they would normally be necessary—don’t be scared because it seems like too much trouble!
Make sure your graphics are appropriate to your audience, subject matter, and purpose — don’t zap beginners with advanced, highly technical graphics they can’t understand.
Intersperse graphics and text on the same page. Place graphics as near to the point in the text where they are relevant as is reasonable, and don’t put them on pages by themselves or attach them to the end of documents. However, if a graphic does not fit properly on one page, put it at the top of the next, and continue with regular text on the preceding page. Don’t leave half a page blank just to keep a graphic near the text with which it is associated.
Always discuss graphics in nearby text preceding the graphic. Don’t just throw a graphic out there unexplained. Orient readers to the graphic and explain its basic meaning. Graphics are not there for decoration! They need to have a purpose and be introduced before the reader encounters them on the page. The first mention of a graphic is called a lead-in statement, and your graphics must always be introduced by a lead-in. Similarly, it is typically recommended to also use a lead-out statement after the graphic. This is a statement that connects the figure to the material that follows.
Use titles and labels for graphics.
Include identifying detail such as illustration labels, axis labels, keys, and so on.
Make sure graphics fit within normal margins—if they don’t, enlarge or reduce the copies. Leave at least 2 blank lines above and below graphics.