Technical Writing: Using Graphics Effectively

Graphics are an integral part of technical writing. Graphics can be an effective aid to improve content clarity. Appropriately placed graphics can help break the monotony of text-heavy content to retain reader interest.

As technical documentation is increasingly being created for a more global audience, the use of graphics has gained even greater relevance in content development. Graphics speak a universal language and help transcend barriers of language to better communicate an idea.

At ASCENT, we consider the following when using graphics:

  • Quality
  • Integration with text
  • Placement
  • Editing to improve effectiveness
  • Cross reference

Graphics Quality

Poorly designed graphics often diminish the overall quality of your content rather than enhance it. Therefore, make sure that the graphics used are of sufficient quality where the details are clear and easy to read. Also, ensure that all relevant details are included in a graphic.

Sometimes, visually appealing graphics without much relevance to the topic are used in marketing material or on websites to improve the aesthetic value of a page. In technical writing, using such graphics may detract from the objective to inform or instruct.

Consider the example below.

7-7all
The screenshot on the right does not show the Tangency panel that is referred to in the preceding text. The screenshot on the left shows the Tangency panel and therefore improves context for the reader.

Integration with Text

Integrating graphics well with the text helps in effectively communicating an instruction. The examples below show how graphics and text can be integrated to complement each other.

Text integration1

Placement

The location of a graphic is based on the context as well as the page balance (text-image-white space ratio on a page). If you are referring to a graphic in the text, try and place it as close to the relevant text. For print content, it is ideal if the referenced graphic appears either on the same page or the facing page of the text reference.

Placement

In the image shown above, figures 7-4 and 7-6 are on the same page as their reference and figure 7-5 is on a facing page.

Editing Graphics to Improve Effectiveness

Often you may need to edit a graphic to draw the reader’s attention to different parts of the graphic. This can be done using numbering and/or highlighting using arrows, boxes, circles, or callouts.  

The example graphic below shows the screenshot of an interface where various screen elements are numbered, and cross referenced in a table.

Revit sample

In the following image, note how the red oval box circles the “Side Cut Profiles and Front Cut Profile sketches”. This helps to draw the reader’s attention immediately to the two options described in step 2.  When using highlights, it is best to choose a colour that provides sufficient contrast to the screenshot colours and stands out from the rest of the image.

Side cut profile

Another editing technique is to blur or crop out irrelevant details in the graphic. This helps to improve the graphic's effectiveness in supporting the accompanying text.

Consider the example below.

3-1

The figure on the left is a screenshot of the entire window. On the right, a more appropriate cropped version of the same screenshot is used with only the details relevant for the instruction in step 1.

You can avoid lengthy or wordy sentences by adding a graphic that is appropriately marked up. Consider the two examples below to see how the mark-up on the graphics has helped to reduce the amount of text required.  

2-3
Cross Reference

In technical content that spans several pages, it is best to include a numbered caption and clear descriptive labels. This makes it easy to refer to the graphic, as shown in the example below.

Cross reference

In conclusion, a picture may not be worth a thousand words, but it can certainly save you many. 😊

To learn about ASCENT’s technical editing services, please email us at tech.writing@ASCENTed.com.

 

About the Author

Surya Nair

Technical Writer and Editor

Surya has been writing and editing technical content for over two decades in multiple industries. How do you transform complex technical content into an easy-to-understand document? Ask Surya - technical writing is her passion! She has been with ASCENT since 2018. She holds a master’s degree in English Literature, and a diploma in Journalism, and is a certified Technical Writer.

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