How to Optimize Visuals in Academic Writing

Julia Barber, PharmD
6 min readMar 13, 2021

Tips for Tables and Figures

We’ve all heard that cliché:

“A picture is worth a thousand words.”

But like most clichés, there is some truth behind this saying. In academic writing, you can use visuals to your advantage. Tables and figures can often illustrate the new findings your research has revealed in a much clearer and more concise manner than text.

In a world of information overload, readers may skim right over important information, but a quick glance at a figure can leave a lasting impression on your reader or draw them into your paper. Let’s take a look at some general guidelines.

Numbering

You should number figures and tables in the order they are mentioned in the text. This scheme makes figures and tables easy to find, as they do not always appear next to the related text.

Capitalization

When referring to a specific table or figure in the text, always capitalize the title. See the example below from a paper by Dai et al. in Cancer Discovery.

Table name capitalization

You can see that the word table is capitalized because it is referring to a specific table (Table 1).

Referencing

Minimize repetition of the information from a table or figure in the text. Simply summarize or describe what information can be found in the table or figure you are referencing.

In the example in the figure above, the authors stated that there were no differences between the two groups in the study at baseline before referencing Table 1. Rather than list every characteristic that was compared in the table, they simply alluded to the fact that the reader can review different characteristics of the patients at baseline in Table 1.

Note: Table 1 usually displays the demographic data of patients included in a study, as in the example provided above. Adhering to this convention will allow readers to quickly find baseline patient data, as this is often where they will look for this information.

Restrictions

Carefully crafted tables and figures can express much information in a smaller amount of space than text. Some journals have word count limits. Utilizing tables and figures can help you cut back on your word count and adhere to these limits.

However, journals can also restrict the number of tables and figures that you can include. Typically, the use of five total tables and figures is permitted. Check the author guidelines of specific journals to review their specific restrictions.

Abbreviations

It is often helpful to shorten terms to abbreviations in tables or figures due to limited space. This strategy is absolutely appropriate. However, you will need to add a key including the definitions of the abbreviations used. See the example below.

Abbreviation key included in a table footnote

Here, the author included a list of abbreviations and their corresponding definitions below the table.

Statistical data

You should include important statistical information, where applicable, to enhance the value of the data and the ability to interpret the data that you are showing. For example, use p values in a table that displays data from two groups to demonstrate significant differences between these groups.

Use of p values in a table

As an alternative, you can include symbols to denote significant differences and include a corresponding key. See below.

Use of symbols to denote significant differences

Here, the author used asterisks to note significant differences in the figure. The key for these symbols was included in the legend below the figure.

These guidelines will help you use tables and figures appropriately in your manuscript. However, there are a few additional items that you should consider to ensure your tables and figures do not detract value from your manuscript. Here are the two main things to avoid.

Data overload

Be strategic in how you display your data. The goal is to make the results clearer. Including too much information or choosing a less optimal format to display the data will likely cause readers to ignore the table or figure.

Indentation to denote subcategories

For example, when you include multiple categories with subcategories in a table, consider indenting the subcategories or bolding the category names to improve the readability.

In some cases, you may consider breaking figures into panels to demonstrate progression or differences between groups. For example, you can include photographs of a rash at baseline and 6 and 12 months after treatments as a panel of three figures (Figure 1A, 1B, and 1C).

In the paper by Dai et al., you can see panels in Figure 1A-J. The figures here were divided into panels to demonstrate outcomes by different comparisons.

You can also color code or use different types of shading to make it easier for the reader to differentiate features of the figure. In the figure below, you can see the use of colors to differentiate different treatment groups.

Use of colors to differentiate groups

This tactic allows the author to include more outcomes in one figure without making the data difficult to interpret.

Skewing the data

When constructing a graph, pay close attention to the settings of the axes and ensure that spacing between values is proportional. For example, if you are comparing two percentages, ensure the axis starts at 0% rather than at a higher percentage. Starting at a higher percentage could imply there is a greater difference between two results than there actually was.

Axis avoiding skewed data

In the figure to the left, you can see that the y-axis starts at 0%. Starting higher would not only exclude some data but also make the differences among groups appear larger. The maximum value on the y-axis is 70%. All figures in this set of figures in the paper have the same maximum. Therefore, consistent comparisons can be made among figures.

Tables vs. figures

Tables and figures can enhance your academic manuscript. But, how do you decide whether a table of a figure fits the data better?

Tables are best used when you have a list of items you want to compare between two or more groups. You can also use tables to list items that would not fit well in the text. For example, you may list quotes that support themes in qualitative data in a table.

Figures are good for illustrating changes in time and differences between groups. Use a figure to display a complex recruitment procedure or treatment timeline. You can also use figures to display images, such as micrographs or photographs.

What’s your biggest challenge with tables and figures? Leave me a comment below, and I’ll do my best to help you out.

If you like this text and would like to have the same editor review your work, contact me about my editing and proofreading services at PharmDEdits@gmail.com or go to my website to get a free quote. Follow me on Instagram and Facebook for free writing tips @pharmdedits.

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Julia Barber, PharmD

I am a licensed pharmacist, medical editor, and medical writer. Follow me on IG @PharmDEdits and Facebook at Facebook.com/PharmDEdits.