Adrienne Montgomerie & Cheryl Stephens—How and what to edit in visuals accompanying text (Editing Goes Global, 2015)

According to Editors Canada’s Professional Editorial Standards, a proficient editor should know how to “ensure that all tables, photos, multimedia, and other visual elements are clear and effectively convey the intended meaning” (Standard C5). But clear and effective how, and by what standard? Veteran editor Adrienne Montgomerie and plain language champion Cheryl Stephens took us through their thoughts on the topic.

Visual are only going to get more important, because research shows that we learn faster and retain more when we see an image, compared with text. Visuals can explain and convey concepts and relationships that would take a long time to explain—for example, cutaway diagrams can effectively convey internal structure. “Text was a fad,” said Montgomerie, only half-joking. “It had a good life, but now we have the means to communicate in other ways.” Visuals are processed in a different part of the brain than text, which is only one of eight ways people communicate and learn. In plain language communications, said Stephens, we should aim to use visuals more than text, although neither should stand alone.

When using visuals, figure out the motivation behind them and the intended audience and message, because different media and styles—photographs, line illustrations, graphs, etc.—have different purposes. Visuals should not be afterthoughts: work closely with designers from the outset and throughout the developmental editing, copy editing, and proofreading stages to ensure that together, the text and visuals communicate clearly. Make sure, too, that the typography is appropriate and readable.

Graphics should emphasize and complement your main point. They draw attention, so to readers will interpret what they illustrate as important. For informational documents, such as textbooks, don’t use a visual for decoration just because you have it. Graphics should help you understand text or be understood on its own.

Be conscious of the psychological effect of colour, which signifies that something is important. More generally, be aware of the symbolism or connotations of not only colours (for example, red meaning stop and green meaning go) but also icons, which should be unambiguous in their meaning. Icons can be misleading if they run counter to culturally accepted meanings. Use familiar approaches if you can, and if you can’t, justify your choices.

Titles and captions should make a claim that your visual proves, so make sure the image accurately reflects the data. Keep the target audience’s level of knowledge in mind when including and captioning an image. A captioned image should ideally stand on its own. Montgomerie has posted a checklist of what to look for when editing captions, She and Stephens suggest using an active verb in the caption.

Finally, Montgomerie repeated what is one of my own mantras: always proof in the final medium.

Montgomerie and Stephens recommend consulting Editing by Design by Jan White for more information about the effects of different ways to combine images and text. If you’re interested in learning more about charts, read my summary of Laurel Hyatt’s presentation (“The chart clinic”) at the 2013 Editors’ Association of Canada conference. For more in-depth information about data visualization, a good place to start is Alberto Cairo’s book, The Functional Art, which I reviewed a few years ago.


UPDATE (June 17, 2015): Adrienne Montgomerie has posted her own summary and comprehensive checklists for the substance, style, and quality of visual elements.

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