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Technical Writing by Phillip A. Laplante

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147
7
Using Graphical Elements
7.1 Breaking up the Monotony
Dull writing can lose the reader’s attention and diminish his understanding.
In Chapter 2 I discussed how humor and allegory can be used to enliven
your writing and hold a reader’s attention. But humor and allegory should
only be used sparingly.
A better way to hold a readers attention is with appropriate use of graphi-
cal elements. By graphical elements, I mean anything that is not just text.
Examples include gures, equations, photographs, and tables. I like using
graphical elements liberally because they can enliven the presentation,
enrich ideas, and alleviate the boredom of a dry, text-only presentation. Even
bullet lists help to change the reader’s pace and by breaking up a long run of
monolithic prose. This chapter addresses appropriate uses of these graphical
elements in technical writing.
7.2 Modeling Ideas with Graphics
Words, tables, gures, equations, and so on can be used to model any idea.
This doesn’t mean that modeling ideas with words or pictures is easy—you
know that writing can be hard. Creating good charts and writing equations
can sometimes be harder. The challenge is to nd the right techniques for the
ideas that you want to explain.
The front matter of my churchs missal lists an Art Director,yet there is
almost no visual art in the book except three infrequently appearing icons.
So, why does the missal need an “Art Director?” The answer is that seeking
the right mix of text and non-text elements is a work of design. In the mis-
sal there are hymns, prayers, music, scriptures, and notes. Finding the best
layout for all these elements is a form of art.
148 Technical Writing: A Practical Guide for Engineers and Scientists
If there are too many graphical elements in a piece of writing, the reader
becomes distracted as the ow of the narrative is lost. If there are too few
graphical elements, the reader’s attention can also be lost in overly long tex-
tual passages. Many concepts can be illustrated via drawings, mathematics,
graphs, lists, and so forth. But how do you obtain the right mix of text and non-
text elements in technical writing? And how are these items best arranged?
7.2.1 A Picture Is Worth 1,437.4 Words
You have heard it said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but why not
1,437.4 words? Of course the cliché uses an arbitrary number because there
is no exact equivalence between a picture and ideas—but the point is that
pictures can be more effective and impactful than words alone in conveying
complex information.
As an example, consider the following discussion of trafc fatalities for
different countries:
In 1998 there were more than 1,170,000 reported trafc fatalities worldwide.
The number of trafc fatalities in poor nations was 8.7% higher than in
wealthy nations. China and Africa had the misfortune of leading the way
with more than 178,000 and 170,000 deaths, respectively. Of the wealthy
nations, those in Eastern Europe fared the best, with only 923 deaths.
This narrative only gives a tidbit of information about worldwide trafc
fatalities. To give a complete picture, I would have to go on with numbers
in textual form for many paragraphs. In addition to being hard to follow,
making the numbers interesting would be challenging without taking great
liberties of style that seem unwarranted.
Now consider Figure 7.1. This gure conveys more information and, I
contend, in a more compelling and easily digested way than the preceding
narrative description. The number of the fatalities per region, as depicted by
the boxes, grabs your attention and makes comparisons very easy.
But be aware that graphical representation can be used as a weapon to
shock the reader or misrepresent information to advance a hidden agenda. In
the case of Figure7.1, the whole story is not obvious because the chart gives
only gross fatalities, not fatalities as a percentage of population. Indias pop-
ulation in 1998 was estimated at 984,003,683, while Chinas population was
1,236,914,658 during the same period (1998 CIA World Factbook). Computing
the number of trafc fatalities per 1,000 people in China and India, we get
0.01% versus 0.02%. India had twice the trafc fatality rate of China in that
year. Of course, there are deep underlying factors for this differencedif-
ferences in mass transportation systems, roadways, population density, and
so forth that can be more easily described in words. Sometimes words are
better than pictures, although usually both together make the most powerful
exposition.

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