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… ??


Photo by Jenny Smith on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, font, layout, margins, text, visual and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to academic writing is visual

  1. Pingback: Use white space for a winning thesis – Becoming a PhD supervisor

  2. I love this post! It’s so relevant for any of us who are English teachers, too. Students writing endless text response essays in exam conditions don’t get to think about the many other material and visual aspects of writing that really do matter. So we end up with HDR students who have little awareness of these dimensions unless they have specifically studied design. I’ve written a little more about white space here: <a href=" because it’s a big preoccupation of mine and I love teaching about it! Thanks so much, Pat, for putting this out there.


  3. Hi Pat, I work with graduate students as a thesis coach. I spent 30 years in a university environment and one thing I could not retire from was my passion for supporting people in their learning and growth, and its contribution to their life/career development. Your recent blog touched on a particular passion of mine, though you didn’t mention this form of ‘visuality’…you see, I truly believe that as students are circling the literature, trying to get clear about and narrow the focus of their research questions, the act of mapping their thinking (even if they aren’t ‘visual learners’) can help them to illustrate themes and connections that they might not otherwise see. Rather than try to work solely from an outline, with endless headings and sub headings, a visual representation of what interests them, and why it matters can help them on the way. Now there are apps that allow students to create digital concept maps (I’m a flip chart paper and felt pen kind of girl) that can then, with a click of the mouse, become a kind of skeletal outline. My point is that I believe that you are truly on to something in describing academic writing as visual…I think your proposal warrants expanding and enriching! Thanks so much for your work in this field, I recommend your blog to many students I work with.


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