How to Use Graphics in Technical Writing
In technical business writing, the graphics – such as engineering drawings, tables, and process diagrams – complement and are integrated with the text, to inform or even to entertain the reader, depending on the writer’s objective. In this post you will learn how to correctly and incorrectly use graphics in your technical business writing.
Integrate Graphics with Text
Integration is bidirectional: An effective graphic enhances the text, and effective text enhances the graphic. In other words, we want to go beyond simply pointing to the graphic in the text, which we would not consider “integration.” We also want to explain the graphic to the reader in the text.
Indeed, depending on the subject matter, it’s a good practice to create the graphic first, to bring together some of the relevant concepts, and then walk the reader through the graphic to make sure all readers will have a common understanding of the graphic and its significance. Using this technique, we can instantly create pages of explanatory text that helps the reader understand and helps us tell the story.
Please note that we are not talking about how to choose among various kinds of graphics, e.g., organization charts, flow diagrams, and the like; that issue could be a subject for another blog. We simply want to explore the relationship between the graphic and the text.
For example, suppose we are writing a contribution to a business blog. (Where did that idea come from?) Figure 1 below shows an overview of the blog writing process.
Figure 1. Blog Writing Process.
The figure answers several questions for the reader:
- What are the steps in the writing process?
- What is the sequence of steps?
- What are the respective responsibilities of the writer and publisher?
At the same time, many questions that could be raised are left unanswered. For example, what activities are involved in “pre-write” or “pre-publish”? The figure doesn’t say. The narrative needs to describe the activities.
Alternatively, we could have listed the component activities of each process step in the process box.
We could have added the following to the pre-write box in the graphic:
- Audience analysis
- Article objective
- Preliminary research
Of course, instead of simply listing the activities, we would also expect to elaborate, so that the reader ultimately understands the scope and objective of each activity. This elaboration is certainly not advisable in the graphic under any circumstances; it’s too much detail.
A good default practice is to provide just the big picture in the figure, as shown, and then provide details in the supporting narrative, thereby integrating the graphic and the text. In the given example (because of the missing detail) the reader, looking at the graphic, is implicitly encouraged to ask questions and to look to the text to fill in the blanks.
For the writer, the high-level graphic is a wonderful organizing mechanism. Using the figure above as a starting point, the writer is now in a position to rattle off the details in the supporting text. Without the figure, the task of describing the flow in words, and then adding detail, is substantially more difficult.
You may be interested in our beginners guide: How to Become a Technical Writer
Integrating Tables and Text
The question of level of detail may be answered differently for a table, which is inherently a text-intensive form of graphic. You should strive to make the table fairly self-explanatory, leveraging the table structure for showing the reader relationships among data elements.
As with other graphics, the table is intended to augment the narrative – typically to strengthen an argument or to illustrate a relationship among data elements. You still need to make the connection for the reader between the table and the argument, or between the table and the relationship being illustrated.
For example, consider Table 1a and Table 1b (below). Let’s suppose we are a contractor bidding on a government solicitation, requiring three labor categories, with the minimum experience and education levels for each category shown in Table 1a. We want to show that our proposed candidates for each category meet the experience and education thresholds, as shown in Table 1b.
It may be evident to the reader who examines the two tables carefully that each candidate meets the minimum education and experience requirements of the appropriate category. However, we want to make that point explicitly in the narrative, to make sure the reader understands it. Again, we are integrating the table with the narrative.
Report formatting is one of the skills we teach in our technical writing course.
A decoration is defined as a graphic that seems to have a vague relationship to the subject of the given article, but is actually content-free – it adds absolutely nothing to the reader’s understanding of the subject at hand. For example, in an article discussing the job description of a software developer, an illustration like Figure 2, taken from a free image website, would be considered a decoration.
Figure 2. A decoration is a content-free graphic.
Incidentally, such a decoration could do more harm than good in today’s political environment. For example, does the photo imply that women and persons of color don’t qualify as developers? Is that a message that we want to convey?
Make Sure the Graphic is Legible
Figure 3 is actually a copy of Figure 2, but very hard to read. The gray text on the light blue background offers insufficient contrast; the type size is only seven points (vs. 10 points in Figure 1); all of the text is in upper case (vs. upper and lower case in Figure 1).
You can ruin a good piece with poorly designed graphics.
Figure 3. A poorly designed graphic.
This issue of graphic legibility is particularly significant when the graphic is a screen shot. How often do you see a screen shot illustrating use of some software tool, or showing the result of a user action, that is totally unreadable? One way to solve the problem is to zoom in on a portion of the screen, so that the text is large enough to be legible. Another is to replace the screen shot with a drawing of the screen that has readable text.
What other methods would you use to make your screen shots legible? Let us know in the comments section below!
About the author
Malcolm has led winning proposal development efforts for government and commercial clients (valued from $1 million to $50 billion) for civilian and military clients in the federal government. He has more than 40 years of systems and software engineering experience. He has also authored more than 150 articles in computer industry publications.