Designing Documents: Using Figures

Commonly Asked Questions

If you aren't accustomed to working with figures, you may feel uncertain about how to incorporate them into your writing. A good place to learn about figures is in journals and other publications. You should also investigate the style guides used in your field. Many organizations produce these guides to help you properly include figures into your documents. To read answers to some common questions, choose any of the items below:

Should figures replace text?

It's typically easier to look at a graph or chart than to read through a paragraph or two that describes information in great detail. This does not mean, however, that graphs and charts should take the place of your text. You should not simply say, "Our results are shown in Figures 1 through 9." Instead, the primary role of figures isn't to replace, but rather to enhance your narrative.

How are graphs, charts and text related?

The role of figures is to reinforce what your text states and to make some of the text easier to understand. Stating information in words gives readers the general idea, but seeing it in graphical form makes it clearer. At the same time, the information you convey in your text also supports your graphic. Don’t just write that the information can be seen in the graphic. Tell your readers what the graphic depicts.

How many figures should I use?

Generally, having more rather than fewer figures is desirable. If the graphics aren’t adding anything, don’t put them in, but you can always find opportunities where figures will help. Remember, you can always place less important figures in an Appendix.

Where should figures appear in the text?

Ideally, figures should appear on the same page, immediately following or adjacent to the first instance when you mention them in your text. When you write, "See Figure One," your readers should be able to easily locate the graphic. Also, your readers will appreciate not having to turn pages and hunt for a graphic. Advances in word processing and desktop publishing software make it relatively easy to insert figures within the text itself. If it isn't possible to fit a graphic onto the page immediately following or adjacent to its first mention in the text, then you should place the graphic on the next page.

What should figures look like?

Figures should be clear and captions should be large enough to be read. Many readers prefer that bold symbols be used to represent data. Also, all lettering and number ing should be large enough to easily read and you should use a mix of bold and lighter lines.

How large should figures be?

Unless they are extremely complex, figures should not take up an entire page. They should be of a size that allows them to be inserted on the page where either the graph or chart is first mentioned. However, they should not be so small that they are difficult to read.

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