Chapter 7: Graphics and Tables

One of the nice things about technical writing courses is that most of the papers have graphics in them--or at least they should. A lot of professional, technical writing contains graphics--drawings, diagrams, photographs, illustrations of all sorts, tables, pie charts, bar charts, line graphs, flow charts, and so on. Once you get the hang of putting graphics like these into your writing, you should consider yourself obligated to use graphics whenever the situation naturally would call for them.

Unlike what you might fear, producing graphics is not such a terrible task--in fact, it can be fun. You don't have to be a professional graphics artist or technical draftsperson to produce graphics for your technical writing. There are ways to produce professional-looking graphics with tape, scissors, white-out, and a decent photocopying machine.

Graphics: an overview

Before getting into details on creating, formatting, and incorporating graphics, consider the types and their functions. You can use graphics to represent the following elements in your technical writing:

Drawings, diagrams, photos

To depict objects, place, people and relationships between them, you can use photos, drawings, diagrams, and schematics.

Uses of illustrations and photos. In the realm of illustrations and photographs, the types run from minimal detail to maximal. A simple line drawing of how to graft a fruit tree reduces the detail down to simple lines representing the hands, the tools, the graft stock, and graft. Diagrams are a more abstract, schematic view of things, for example, a wiring diagram of a clock radio; it hardly resembles the actual physical thing. And of course photographs provide the most detail of all. These graphics, supplying gradations of detail as they do, have their varying uses. Here are some examples:

Formatting requirements. When you use an illustration in a report, there are several requirements to keep in mind (most of these are shown in Figure 7-1): Producing illustrations. Now for the question we're all waiting to ask--how to create graphics? There are several options: photocopying, scanning, clip art, and hand-drawing. See the discussion on indicating the source of borrowed information and the examples in Figure 7-1 and Figure 7-2.

Figure 7-1. Elements of a pictorial graphic. Notice that you can use a simpler means of indicating the source by using the same format as in regular number-system citations.


At least as the way things stand right now, getting photographs into reports is a problem. They don't photocopy well (although they do better now than just a few years ago). They don't attach to report pages very well either. High-quality scanning equipment may be the better alternative in this area, although a scanned image costs $5 to $10 right now at local copy shops equipped to offer this service. If you need to use photographs in your technical reports for our technical writing course, consult with your instructor. After all, this is a writing course, not a graphic arts course--taped-in or photocopied photographs may be okay in this setting.


Tables of course are those rows and columns of numbers and words, mostly numbers. They permit rapid access to and easy comparison of information. If the data is arranged chronologically (for example, sales figures over a ten-year period), the table can show "trends," patterns of rising or falling activity. Of course, tables are not necessarily the most vivid or dramatic means of showing these trends or relationships between data--that's why we have charts and graphs (discussed in the next section).

Uses for tables. The biggest use of tables is for numerical data. Imagine that you are comparing different models of laser printers in terms of physical characteristics such as height, depth, length, weight, and so on--perfect for a table.

However, don't get locked into the notion that tables are strictly for numerical data. Whenever you have situations where you discuss several things about which you provide the same categories of detail, you've got a possibility for a table. For example, imagine that you were comparing several models of a laser printer: you'd be saying the same category of thing about each printer (it's cost, print speed, supply costs, warranty terms, and so on). This is ideal stuff for a table, and it would be mostly words rather than numbers (and in this case, you'd probably want to leave the textual discussion where it is and "re-present" the information in table form.

Table format. In its simplest form, a table is a group of rows and columns of data. At the top of each column is a column heading, which defines or identifies the contents of that column (and often it indicates the unit of measurement). On the left edge of the table are row headings, which define or identify the contents of that row. Things get tricky when rows or columns must be grouped or subdivided. Now, you have to create row or column subheadings. This is illustrated in Figure 7-2.

Figure 7-2. Format for tables with grouped or subdivided rows and columns.

Traditionally, the title of a table is placed on top of the table or is the first row of the table. If the contents of the table are obvious and there is no need to cross-reference the table from anywhere else in the report, you can omit the title. To make life simpler, in this technical writing course, consider tables as figures (the same as illustrations and other graphics), and number them within the same sequence.

As for specific formatting guidelines for tables, keep these in mind (most of these guidelines are illustrated in Figure 7-3):

Producing tables. Normally, you'll be borrowing information in which a good table occurs. If it's a simple table without too many rows and columns, retype it yourself into your own document (but remember to document where you borrowed it from in the figure title). However, if it is a big table with lots of data, you're justified in photopcopying it and bringing it into your report that way.

When you manually type tables, consider putting a string of hyphens between the column headings and the first row of data and another string of hyphens between the last row of data and any totals the table has.

Most of the advanced word-processing software packages, such as Word and WordPerfect, now have table-generating tools. You don't have to draw the lines and other formatting details.

Occasionally, in rough-draft technical reports, information is presented in regular running-text form that could be better presented in table (or tabular) form. Be sure and look back over your rough drafts for material that can transformed into tables.

For indicating the source of borrowed information, see Figure 7-1.

Figure 7-3. Format for tables. Watch for opportunities to convert text to table as in this example.

Charts and graphs

Charts and graphs are actually just another way of presenting the same data that is presented in tables--although a more dramatic and interesting one. At the same time, however, you get less detail or less precision in a chart or diagram than you do in the table. Imagine the difference between a table of sales figures for a ten-year period and a line graph for that same data. You get a better sense of the overall trend in the graph but not the precise dollar amount.

Formatting requirements. When you create charts and diagrams, keep these requirements in mind (most of these elements are illustrated in Figure 7-4):

Figure 7-4. Examples of graphs and charts. Notice the use of keys, axis labels, figure titles, and cross-references for both figures in this example. Producing charts and graphs. As with illustrations, you have these options for creating charts and graphs: photocopying from other sources, generating your own with special software, and manual creating your own. Many of the text-processing software packages have fancy features for generating charts and graphs--you just crank in your data, specify the format you want, and let 'er rip.

Documenting graphics: indicating sources

As mentioned earlier, it's perfectly legal to borrow graphics--to trace, photocopy, or scan them. But you're obligated to cite your sources for graphics just as you are for the words you borrow. Normally, this is done in the figure title of the graphics. Check the examples in Figure 7-1 and Figure 7-2. For details on the contents of the source citation, see Appendix B, page .

General guidelines for graphics--a review

The preceding sections repeat a number of general guidelines that need to be stated all in one place. These are important! Return to the table of contents for the TCM1603 Course Guide (the online textbook for Austin Community College's online technical writing course).
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