Visual support for the written word

Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.

Whether or not one is prepared to call them art, visual aids can be vitally important in presenting a scientist's message. They summarize and emphasize key points and reduce narrative length. They simplify information, and in this way enhance understanding. They improve the conciseness and clarity of the narrative. And finally, when carefully crafted, they add visual appeal.

Visual material supports the printed message. Picking up a classic research paper, scientists often scan graphics such as tables and figures to see whether the rest of a paper is worth reading. While they may not go on to study every sentence, they almost always look at every illustration. For this reason, each visual aid must contribute an essential part to the written or spoken story, and each must be capable of standing on its own without reference to the text.

For two major reasons, it pays to start preparing visual aids as early as possible in the writing process. First, because tables and figures present data in condensed form and help clarify and support ideas, they make writing easier. Second, sooner than you think, you'll be asked to give an oral presentation on your research. While the visual aids for a written document seldom are suitable for direct transfer into a slide presentation, they undeniably will form the basis for that presentation.

In this chapter, we'll present guidelines for various types of graphic aids for the traditional research paper. In the next chapter, we'll discuss ways to adapt them for oral presentations and posters.


In the parlance of an editor, all illustrations in scientific writing are of two types, tables and figures. Tables are familiar to just about everyone, being the most used (and many say, overused) visual aid. Figures are anything that isn't a table. They may be numerically based (the many kinds of graphs), documentary (photographs, machine print-outs), or explanatory (drawings, diagrams).

Paradoxically, while figures themselves are often overused, many types are underutilized. Each type of figure has its own strengths and weaknesses. The brief checklist given in Table 3.1 can help you determine which types of illustration will be the most appropriate for a particular purpose, and this chapter presents

Table 3.1. Choosing the most effective type of illustration for a given goal

To accomplish this

To present exact values, raw data, or data which do not fit into any simple pattern To summarize trends, show interactions between two or more variables, relate data to constants, or emphasize an overall pattern rather than specific measurements To dramatize differences or draw comparisons To illustrate complex relationships, spatial configurations, pathways, processes, or interactions To show sequential processes To classify information To describe parts or electric circuits To describe a process, organization, or model To compare or contrast To describe a change of state To describe proportions To describe relationships To describe causation To describe an entire object To show the vertical or horizontal hierarchy within an object, idea, or organization

Choose one of these Table, list Line graph

Bar graph Diagram


Table, list, pictograph Schematic

Pictograph, flowchart, block diagram

Pictograph, pie chart, bar graph

Line graph, bar graph

Pie chart, bar graph

Table, line graph, block diagram

Flowchart, pictograph

Schematic, drawing, photograph

Flowchart, drawing tree, block diagram some tips for effective ways to use them. When you are considering a potential visual aid, keep two questions in mind.

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  • eden
    What visual aids are most overused?
    8 years ago

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