7 Tips for constructing effective tables and figures

Figures with writingIt’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and for this reason using visual elements within your manuscript can help to keep the writing concise and effective. But how can you be sure that the words conveyed are delivering the right message?

Below you will find seven tips for incorporating tables and figures into your work.

Use visuals that enhance the manuscript

Most scholars agree that if the idea conveyed by a table or figure can be done with a sentence or two, the visual is likely unnecessary and the concept should be written in paragraph form. For larger data sets, complex ideas, or schematics, however, the use of visuals can simplify the understanding and reduce the overall word count needed to convey the information.

Ensure clarity in isolation

Although tables and figures are intended to accompany the text and add to the content of the manuscript, the manuscript itself should not be needed to understand the visual. Each visual should contain appropriate titles, labels, legends, or other text-based elements to ensure clarity of content within the object. This is especially important when publishing in journals that require tables and figures to be placed in a separate reference section at the end of the article.

Choose between tables and figures

Sometimes tables or figures can both be viable options for representing data. Avoid the temptation to use both for the same content. Generally, tables should be used to represent larger sets of data or those where the detailed values are important. Charts can be appropriate visuals for smaller data sets or summarized views of larger data sources. In the same way that visuals can be more efficient than text, charts can often better represent the information than a table and have a greater visual appeal to readers.

Title tables and caption figures

The table title is used to identify and summarize the table contents. Depending on the type of journal, titles can range from a short, descriptive name, to a detailed sentence-like structure. Figure captions should succinctly describe the accompanying content. All tables and figures should be numbered sequentially and referenced in the manuscript by type and number (i.e. Table 1 or Figure 1).

Organize the results

When using tables, clearly identify column contents with column titles. For items of comparison (often in the same column within the table), use the same level of precision. Consider grouping or sorting the rows in a table for clarity, emphasis, or readability. When developing charts or figures, consider the order content is displayed within the image as well.

Minimize clutter

Eliminate any elements of visual design that are not essential to the intended message. Some ways to accomplish this include:

  • Choosing between data labels or legends.
  • Removing background colors and non-essential gridlines from tables and charts.
  • Minimizing precision levels on values.
  • Avoiding redundancy with the narrative.

Consider accessibility factors

Choose font sizes and colors that are easy to read and effectively represent your visual content. When using color, especially in charts or graphs, ensure contrast levels both for accessibility purposes and effectiveness when published or printed in black and white. For electronic distribution, consider using additional summary and alternative text attributes with all tables and figures to improve performance with assistive technologies.

Every visual element within your paper should have purpose and convey details in a clear and succinct manner that supplements the narrative content in the manuscript. When used effectively, these features can improve the overall impact of your message.

Eric SchmiederEric Schmieder is the Membership Marketing Manager for TAA. He has taught computer technology concepts to curriculum, continuing education, and corporate training students since 2001. A lifelong learner, teacher, and textbook author, Eric seeks to use technology in ways that improve results in his daily processes and in the lives of those he serves. His latest textbook, Web, Database, and Programming: A foundational approach to data-driven application development using HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, MySQL, and PHP, First Edition, is available now through Sentia Publishing.