Academic writing is visual


Writing is a visual medium

It may seem odd to say that writing is visual. Writing – and academic writing in particular –  is about words and what they say isn’t it? Well of course it is. But the way in which we engage with words can be pretty seriously affected by the ways in which they are presented to us.

You see, a page is an arrangement of two elements – there’s the text, made up of words, and then there’s the place where the words aren’t – white space. And the more solid the block of words are, the less white space there is, the more the reader is likely to see the page as difficult to get into.

Of course, academic writers often don’t get a say in all of the decisions made about how their writing will look. Somebody else – the publisher of the book or journal, university regulations – may well have already made some decisions about font size, margins and galleys, and perhaps even the required use of numbers for paragraphs. The number and hierarchy of headings may also be a given. Using proprietary web platforms such as this (WordPress), also limits the design features that can  be used.

But even if there are limits, it’s still helpful to think about the visual elements of your writing.

Say a writer is working to page limits and keen to jam in as much in as possible. They decide to reduce the size of the top, bottom and side margins. They squash more words in, but at a cost. Their page might seem pretty inaccessible to a reader. Then, they use the smallest possible font, or one which is quite cramped. And this only adds to a reader’ s fear that they are about to enter a dense grey fog of verbiage.

Thinking about your writing as visual means that you begin to think about how the information is presented on the page, in particular considering what makes the writing feel inviting, what makes it feel accessible and comprehensible. When you do this, you begin to think a little like a designer.

So here are a few things to consider – my basic LTG of the visualities of academic writing:

L is for Layout

Step back from the page – squint. Look at how the page appears to you. Is it one solid mass or is it broken up into digestable bites/blocks? What do your eyes tell you? Is this a verbal crowd that the reader has to battle their way through?

How have you used white space – do you have generous margins around the text? Is it broken up into sections and paragraphs? Have you crammed images into the available space so that they appear to be one with the words, instead of another and separate medium for conveying information?

Does the page appear balanced? Is your eye drawn to one part of the page and not the rest  – is this actually what you intend? (The optimum page designs are often said to be the F pattern or the  Z pattern.)

T is for Text 

If you are writing in English then your readers’ eyes travel from left to right. Then it is generally easier to read text that is justified on the left and is evenly spread out – text that is justified on both sides often has uneven spacing so it takes a little more effort for eyes to track – and understand what’s being said.

Font matters. Apart from choosing a font that is relatively familiar and easy to read and not too small, the key issue is not to use too many fonts at once. Frequency in font use makes text hard to read as it’s a bit confusing. What does each font mean? Commercial publishers sometimes use different fonts for headings and the main body of text but they keep the number to a manageable number. It’s worth looking to see how these publishing graphics work.

It’s also really important to look at each page and ask yourself whether readers can easily find the most important information on that page.

Writers can point readers to key information through using multi-media in which words may be one element. Images, figures and diagrams can provide evidence and detail. They might also provide complementary information. Bullet-pointed lists indicate key points. Numbered lists show steps, priorities or chronologies  – this then that, then this then that. Flow charts show processes. Maps show relationships, territories and borders, flows and positions. Hyperlinks show connections. Footnotes and endnotes show evidence and also connections.

Using easily located media to provide information is important. Which brings us to..

G is for Guidance

Headings are the reader’s guide-ropes.

Headings help the reader to find their way through a text. Writers can give readers navigation tools which assist them to understand what is coming up – key ideas, major points and themes.

Headings are usually organised in a hierarchy of importance – chapter title, section heads and sub headings for smaller points and themes. Hierarchies of importance are signalled through the size, style and alignment of heading fonts that you choose. You can set heading formats ahead of time in standard word-processing software or use those that are already pre-set.

So there you are. LTGs. There’s much more to the visuals of writing, but that’s a start. I hope I’ve said enough to make the point – that the appearance of text is significant as it goes to how well we communicate our thinking and research results.

Poets think a lot about visuality. They consider line lengths and breaks and what these do to the way readers encounter their text.  Web designers also have to think a lot about how people read a screen. And as academics become more digital we also need to become design savvy.

But the visual matters even in ordinary old academic writing – like that grant bid where it is tempting to cram as much as possible into a limited space. So perhaps, just perhaps, there is too little discussion of the visual in discussions of academic writing… ??