Selecting visuals to illustrate your post, article, or book

Enhance Your Writing: How to Design, Select or Create Effective VisualsIt was great to see many TAA members at the recent conference in Philadelphia! Since not everyone could attend, I’m sharing my presentation about “Enhance Your Writing: How to Design, Select or Create Effective Visuals” in this and future Abstract posts. See the previous post, Figuring it out: Trends for visuals in academic writing. Next month I will write about ways to create original visuals.

Yes, you need visuals!

If you are someone who submits text-only writing, you might ask: why do I need to bother? Lynn Nygaard, author of writing for scholars, points out that when readers skim over your work before committing themselves to reading it in full, one of the first places their eyes land is on your tables and figures (Nygaard, 2015).  She points out that while a good visual is worth 1000 words a bad one takes 1000 words to explain. Effective visuals can:

  • Attract readers attention
  • Communicate complex ideas
  • Show relationships between factors or concepts
  • Provide context

Developing criteria for the visuals you select

When we create our own visuals, we can represent the specific points we can communicate by taking photographs, generating visualizations, or developing diagrams or figures. Sometimes we want to use visuals, but lack the time, tools, or talent for creating them. What should we look for when we want to select images for informal posts or formal publications? By answering three key questions we can determine whether the image will enhance our writing:

  • Will it communicate your points?
  • Will it be effective for your audience?
  • Do you have permission to use it?

Let’s look at each one.

Will it communicate your points?

Visuals should allow the reader to gain new understanding of the topics central to your writing. Depending on the nature of your research or subject matter, you might find images that relate directly, or images that show a more general context. For example, if I am discussing writing groups and productivity, I can probably find a photograph of people writing together. This kind of general image can be useful in drawing attention to the article or book, even though it doesn’t represent the factors that contributed to productivity. However, if the image shows situations outside the scope of the study, it might be confusing to the reader.

Will it be effective for your audience?

Who are you trying to reach? Think about what you have in common and where your backgrounds or perspectives are different.

Enhancing Your Writing with Visuals

Do they share disciplinary foundations? Do you have common professional or institutional affiliations? Do you have similar national cultures and language? If so, you can use shorthand, discipline-specific terms and acronyms. If not, your visuals will not help your reader grasp your message. When your writing will be published for diverse international audiences, select visuals that will help bridge the gaps. Keep in mind cultural differences and avoid potentially offensive images.

Another consideration for effectiveness: where do you expect readers to encounter your work? On a big screen or a phone, in a print or electronic book or article page? If you expect readers to view your piece on a tiny screen, avoid tiny print!

Do you have permission to use it?

The Internet is full of pictures and media, so how do I know whether I can use them? I suggest four options for locating images or media you can reproduce in your work:

  • Pixabay is one of my favorite places on the web. The excellent tagging system makes it easy to find representational as well as symbolic or metaphorical photos, illustrations and drawings. As the site says, “Pixabay is a vibrant community of creatives, sharing copyright free images and videos. All contents are released under the Pixabay License, which makes them safe to use without asking for permission or giving credit to the artist – even for commercial purposes.”
  • Creative Commons has a new CC image search function, boasting over 300 million images from 19 collections. Their searches yield images from the public domain, or from sites or documents under Creative Commons licenses. As you likely know, some CC licenses allow for commercial use, others allow for non-commercial use, and some allow modifications, others not.
  • Google Images allow you to draw images from the corners of the digital world. Naturally, most of these images are someone else’s intellectual property. Helpfully, under the “tools” dropdown you will find another dropdown for “usage rights.” You can filter for commercial, non-commercial uses.
  • YouTube allows video sharing, however, that doesn’t necessarily mean creators want to share with your readers. There are copyright considerations. For example, providing a regular link to a youTube video does not infringing on any copyright laws. The issue of copyright infringement becomes murkier if we include an embedded youTube video link. Now, the youTube video appears on my online article, blog, or website, in contrast to the previous case, where it only appears as a link. You will most likely need permission to embed a video.

It might be acceptable to use a found image or media clip in a classroom or private setting, but written permission will be needed to use in a publication. Keep in mind that when there are recognizable people you will need their consent for most publications.

Let’s SEE what you can do!

As a visual communicator myself, I look forward to seeing more visually-rich writings (and presentations). Please use the comment area to share any examples of excellent books or articles that demonstrate the power of images to enhance writings.

Nygaard, L. P. (2015). Writing for scholars: A practical guide to making sense and being heard (2nd ed.). London: SAGE Publications.


Janet SalmonsJanet Salmons is an independent scholar and writer through Vision2Lead. She is the Methods Guru for SAGE Publications blog community, Methodspace, and the author of six textbooks. Current books are the forthcoming Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn from Stylus, and Doing Qualitative Research Online (2016) from SAGE.