Illustrate This

A picture is worth a thousand words. A bad picture takes a thousand words to explain. Images in non-fiction are a tricky business, and there are a handful of tips to making sure your images work.

But first, apologies! I had this edition of T4 ready to go before I left for vacation but found out that my vacation spot had no internet access! It was great from a relaxation point of view, but it was frustrating nonetheless.

And now, back to our diary, already in progress…

Illustrations, graphs, charts, photos – all can add to a non-fiction book’s usefulness. And depending on what kind of book you are writing, illustrations may be more or less useful. Consider these points – I know some of them are no-brainers, but it’s always worth listing them anyway:

Process Pictures
If your book teaches readers how to bake a cake, install a home theater, or sew a quilt, of course you want pictures. You want your readers to see the finished product, and have illustrations showing intermediate steps as well. It helps to see the color of the batter, or the hookup panel, or the pre-stitched layout.

However, don’t have pictures just to have them. If you’re explaining a computer process, you don’t have to show every single screenshot of every single step; give us the ones where we have to make choices or may not necessarily see the options. Don’t give us the OK screens or the “do you really want to save” screens.

If you’re talking at ALL geographically (even if that geography is the interior of a server), maps help. Histories and biographies benefit from a map showing the environs; it’s especially helpful when you’re talking about battles or migrations.

However, if you are showing a route or pointing out landmarks, don’t overclutter. There’s a map in a Civil War book my father owned (long gone now except in my memory) that had so many of the troop movements illustrated you could barely tell which battalion was which and for whom they fought. I always puzzled over that map, wishing I could figure it out. The author would have been much better served to divide the map into several less complicated maps – either highlighting each general’s movements, or showing movements for a given time period.

Accuracy counts too. Just sayin’…

Charts and Graphs
A well-designed chart or graph can help explain concepts, make numbers more striking, or show relationships. Flow charts are incredibly handy when trying to explain processes. Mind maps are great for showing connections (just don’t make them Glenn-Beck’s-Blackboard laughable). Venn diagrams, bar charts, line charts, and pie charts all have their place too, and can really make a concept come alive.

However, make sure they aren’t so complicated that you need more than a page to explain them. If your editor looks at it and says “huh?” your chart may not be appropriate.

Also, if the chart doesn’t have some drama, you may want to skip it. Let’s say you’re showing poll results and want to prove that most Americans think the Tea Party is full of crackpots, your chart will be effective if the number of sane people looks large. Consider these two graphs, based on a recent poll that was featured on the front page. (Click the link to see the chart.)

Now the pie chart was illustrative, and it had quite a bit of impact. I wonder, however, what the impact would be if it had been a bar chart:

To me, there’s a little more drama, when you see how tall the No column is compared to the others. Not that the slice of the pie doesn’t have drama – but it is a consideration when you’re thinking about how to best represent information. And If you’re trying to show how LITTLE movement there is in something, a graph that show nearly imperceptible movement may be dramatic as well.

And finally, if the chart doesn’t tell you anything that your words don’t tell you, skip it…or edit your words to let the chart do the talking. In other words, avoid a sentence like “The graph above shows that 54% of Americans do not support the Tea Party movement, while 29% do, with 17% who don’t know.” A better lead is “Here’s what the tea party majority looks like:” (Way to go, Jed!)

If you’re writing a travelogue of Cape Cod, you will want pictures of landmarks, people, events, etc. But if you’re writing a treatise on postmodern language, pictures will be distracting. Just make sure, again, that the photos have a reason for being there.

Also make sure they are clear and printable. I admit a little regret that our published photo of Senator Al Franken being sworn in is a blurry video screen shot; the other photos in Recounting Minnesota were much clearer and translated well to black and white printing.

Drawn Illustrations
All of the above rules apply, of course – make sure they have a reason for being there and that they show some information you can’t get just from the words. I would add this note about illustrations: make sure the illustrations are consistent; whether you work with one illustrator or a group of them, the images should all be ‘of a piece’ – meaning they should look the same.

Of course, if you’re showing off a history of 20th century illustration, then of COURSE the illustrations will be different. But otherwise, they should look like they belong together. A great sample of this is the Moosewood Cookbook; not only do the illustrations match, the look is distinctive, and if you know the book, you can spot a page from it a mile away. (And if you don’t know this cookbook, go right now and buy it. I’ll wait. It set the standard for delicious vegetarian cooking.)

Last Piece
If you’re using other people’s photos, charts, and illustrations, get the requisite permissions. And give credit where credit is due!

Next week, we’ll talk about front matter – contents, introductions, forewords, prefaces, preludes, prologues, dedications, and whatever else you want people to flip past so they can get to the start of the book already. See you next Monday!