Top 3 tips for using graphics, tables, and illustrations in scientific writing


Posted August 15, 2018

Figures, tables, and illustrations in technical and scientific writing can be invaluable. Use a picture. It's worth a thousand words," said newspaper editor Tess Flanders to the Syracuse Post Standard in 1911, in what may be the first printed instance of the famous English idiom.
Such evergreen advice remains as true today as it did over a century ago. When used well, visuals can communicate an enormous amount of information at a glance. They can distill complex concepts into a single image that helps the reader better understand and remember the information being presented. This is sometimes called the Pictorial Superiority Effect. As described by John Medina in his book Brain Rules, “If information is presented orally, people remember about 10%, tested 72 hours after exposure. That figure goes up to 65% if you add a picture.”
But it’s easy to get the visual elements of a scientific or technical paper wrong. A poorly formed figure or table will just confuse the reader and obscure the subject matter.
Here are the three most important best practices when dealing with visuals in scientific and technical writing.

Pick the right format

The first question to ask when generating a visual accompaniment to your written work: “How can the data best be presented in visual form?” Tables can present significant amounts of numerical data in a clearly organized way. Figures and photos provide evidence, examples, or a visual breakdown of the subject matter. Graphs and figures are excellent at visualizing relationships between variables. Within the latter category, be sure to choose the right type of graph or figure:
  • Line graph: present the relationship between two sets of data, or one set of data over time
  • Bar graph: compare quantities and display data that has been grouped into nominal categories
  • Pie chart: compare relative proportions or parts of a whole
  • Flow chart: walk through a clear process or hierarchy
  • Histogram: visualize the frequency distribution of data

Make sure the figure can stand on its own

Unfortunately, it’s easy to create a graphic that no one can decipher. In addition to picking the right format, use the figure title and caption to tell the reader what they’re looking at. The caption should encapsulate the gist of what’s being communicated in the visual and, sometimes, even describe why the information is important. Remember, many readers skim papers before they read in full and may scrutinize the visuals before they’ve read the text. Include just enough information that the figure can be understood on its own.

Avoid redundancy

The value of a visual is to streamline the information being communicated. That value is lost if the author repeats the same information in the main text and/or in multiple visuals. Don’t regurgitate information; simply decide where each piece of information will work best, be it in one illustration or another, or in the text.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 25 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.