How to Use Visual Aids in Writing


You cannot overestimate the power of an image in any creative endeavor. Michelangelo confirms this when he explains, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Whether writing creatively, informatively or persuasively, visual aids will help your audience understand, remember or respond to your message. You may use tables or figures such as graphs, charts and illustrations. Use visuals to supplement, rather than replace, your text. Provide a modest number of relevant, quality visuals to effectively stress, compress, impress, illuminate or stimulate discussion of your writing among readers.

  • Plan your visual aids to concisely explain portions of your text. Use tables to present or compare large quantities of data and figures to demonstrate other points. For example, use a bar graph to compare amounts, a scatter graph to indicate how two variables correlate and a line graph to display a relationship or trend. Use a “big picture” pie chart to detail its composition, present a schedule with a Gantt chart, describe a process with a flow chart and reveal hierarchies with an organizational chart. Use photographs to memorably illustrate examples, diagrams to emphasize process steps or sequences, and drawings to underscore specific details.

  • Opt for quality over quantity. Select or design each visual aid to be clearly understandable, crisp and undistorted. The simpler, the better; remove as many unnecessary details as possible from each image. If you must reproduce your visuals for clarity, acknowledge its original source nonetheless in the caption or your compiled list of citations.

  • Title your visual aids consistently. Assign an illustration label and number to each item; for example, use “Table 1” or “Figure 1.” Always refer to each visual aid in two distinct places: Within you text as “table 1” and within a caption as “Table 1.”

  • Explain each visual aid within your text. For example, write, “Community college enrollment is counter-cyclical; the worse our community’s unemployment rates become, the better our student enrollment figures tend to be (see fig. 1).” This in-text explanation should effectively guide your readers’ interpretation of your visual aid’s content and intent. Position each visual aid close to the text that refers to it.

  • Caption each visual aid. Begin with an illustration label and number such as “Table 1,” followed by a description such as “State University Graduation Rates by Design Discipline, 2000-2010.” You may also provide the source information and notes as part of your caption. For example, “Source: Florida Department of Education, State University Statistics, 2010.” For notes, you might add, “a. Design disciplines include all building design specialties,” and “b. No data exists for interior design graduates prior to 2002.”

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  • Photo Credit countdown image by Adrian Hillman from hand pointing image by Jorge Casais from two image by Valua Vitaly from three image by Valua Vitaly from four image by Valua Vitaly from hand open image by JCVStock from
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