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Balancing Text and Graphics

by J. M. Haile

To help clarify a message, a technical writer will routinely use graphical devices, such as plots, charts, diagrams, histograms, schematics, projections from three-dimensional surfaces, and exploded views. Part of the challenge is in deciding when to use a graphic and how to incorporate it into the text.

In this little article, we point out that the writer can take either of two different views concerning the relation between a graphic and the text. Either

  1. the graphic supports the text, or
  2. the text supports the graphic.

The task of writing may be eased if the writer can articulate which of these views is being used.

The Graphic Supports the Text

In this approach the text dominates (the message is being conveyed primarily via words) and the graphic serves to explain or illustrate the text. The text could stand alone, but the writer judges that the reader might grasp the material more quickly or more securely if a graphic is included. Without the text, the graphic would carry little meaning. When this attitude is adopted, the text is usually written first, and the graphic is added later, perhaps during editing.

The Text Supports the Graphic

In this approach the graphic is the dominating communication channel, while the text serves to interpret or amplify the graphic. When the graphic is well-designed, it could stand alone, but the writer adds text to reinforce the message contained in the graphic. Without the graphic, the text would be meaningless. When this attitude is adopted, the graphic is created first, and the supplemental text is then written with direct and repeated reference to the graphic.

Discussion

These are two very different attitudes toward the relation between text and graphics, and the accomplished technical writer must master both. As with all matters of technical style, the decision as to which approach to use must be dictated by the needs of the reader: when the material is complicated or the reader is not familiar with the material, a well-designed graphic may be more effective than a well-written paragraph. Unfortunately, not all technical material lends itself to graphic interpretation; then we must rely on words, equations, and tables to help the reader. In most documents, the writer will use the first approach for some graphics and the second for others.

Beyond the needs of the reader, an explicit articulation of the relation between graphic and text can ease the labor of writing. For example, if generating paragraph after paragraph becomes hard-going and unfocused, consider switching to the graphic-dominant approach. Can you find a figure (or series of figures) that conveys your message? If so, then your text writing devolves to explaining the figure. Such a change in emphasis can help both writer and reader.