Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age

Sample Figures


Artful figure presentation takes some practice to master, but two basic categories—a simple figure and a complex figure—provide for a useful starting point.

Simple Figure

The purpose of a simple figure, often in the form of a picture or a map, is typically to give the reader basic visual context. The simple figure that follows is in the form of a cartoon cutaway, with its purpose to give the viewer an idea of how a fan from a heater can stir up dust at a worker’s feet in an enclosed cab.

Figure 1. Floor heater stirring up
dust in an enclosed cab.

Complex Figure

Complex figures are handy when we want readers to compare multiple pieces of information or to establish analytical relationships among parts. The complex figure and corresponding text that follow were published in the proceedings of the year 2000 Conference of The International Emergency Management Society. I chose this figure because, as often occurs in papers, it is effectively introduced at the end of a paragraph describing its function, and because it includes a thorough, descriptive caption.

This figure is especially useful because it visually aids us in understanding the possible relationships among various players in a rescue operation—something that would not easily be described by text alone. Given that the viewers of the figure are intended to understand human movement and interactions within two different field areas (an "area of operation" and a "command post"), depiction of these interactions greatly simplifies our understanding and connects us to the place of activity better than text alone could.

To analyze command and control in rescue operations, we need to capture the temporal aspects of the interaction between the command post and the units in the area of operation. Figure 1 illustrates the data collection needs and the applicability of the corresponding support tools.
A sample graph
Figure 1. A graphical description of different possible tools for registering the course of events in different areas. ELA is effective inside the command post. The communication between the command post (gray box) and other units (boxes with 3 digit numbers) is identified in the communication layer. A model of the dynamic course of events in the area of operation is created using an instrumentation system, for example MIND.

As this sample figure demonstrates, the caption to a figure, especially a complex one, can do far more work than just identify the nature of the picture. The caption can describe the trend being demonstrated, can explain to the reader how to view the figure, and can build on the text within the paper beyond the figure caption (thus the references in the example to ELA and MIND).