The role of visual elements - Words and images

Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018

The role of visual elements
Words and images

Although this book is about writing, it is also about images. There are at least 25 figures and 15 tables in this book, and the book’s overall design and visual appearance adds to its interest and accessibility. And so it is with many of the documents you will produce during your time at university.

Increasingly in our digital age, words come with associated images. The online world is replete with images. In human history, drawn images came well before written words. Australian rock paintings, and French and Spanish cave art, pre-date Mesopotamian cuneiform writing by at least 30,000 years. Images can express more elegantly, more coherently and more completely what words may stumble to express. What can take thousands of words to describe inadequately, a single image may capture in an instant.

Many kinds of academic writing assignment, from posters and presentations to dissertations and research papers, have a strong visual component. This chapter considers how and when different visual devices - tables, graphs, charts and so on - can be integrated with text.

8.1 The role of visual elements

Writing is more or less linear. When you read, you follow the words across and down a page to capture meaning. Visual elements tend to be non-linear. In many cases, you capture meaning by comprehending the image overall. Even in the case of graphs and tables that present large volumes of data, they are rarely read downwards starting at the top-left, as is typically the case with written English prose. Visual elements are ’read’ in a different way from normal written text.

Visual elements thus give the reader a distinctive experience. This difference can be used to engage the reader, inject variety and provide explanation that complements the text. As a general rule, visual elements should enhance the communication, not simply repeat, in a different form, what is already well explained in the text. The use of visual elements can be planned ahead, or may emerge naturally as text is written.

You need to check with an assessor whether visual elements are permissible for a given assignment. In a practical report they are often vital ingredients but in an essay an assessor might wish you to exclude them.