A Better Picture: The Use of Images in Writing

During his discussion of his writing class’s clay assignment, Dennis Baron tells us that his students’ pickiness over clay color is a reminder of the fact that “given the chance, writers will focus on the artistic elements of writing as much as on the content” (74). Baron then goes on to add that “many writers like to experiment with the aesthetic variables of whatever they are using” (83).

Yet, as academics, this desire for aesthetic appeal is one that we are usually denied in our professional lives—we are not “given the chance.” The vast majority of the work we do is formatted, standardized, and imageless.

One of the few opportunities that academics have to break out of the confines double-spaced text only documents is when they make the transition into writing a book. Suddenly, images are not only allowed, but encouraged. It seems to me there are various reasons for this shift in aesthetic appeal, including a change in the formality of the work, an appeal to a wider audience, and to provide some distractions lest the written material become monotonous or dull.

Images have the ability to add things to a text that would be otherwise impossible—or at least extremely difficult—to convey, but this ability does not mean that they should be added simply for the sake of adding them. Rather, authors have a responsibility to use images in a way that builds upon or enhances the written component of the work. We can see distinction between these two types of image use in some of the many images that Baron includes in A Better Pencil.

Images that do not add to a work are those that are not fully discussed within the text or those that do not add to the purpose of the text. In Baron’s text, an example of this type of image is his inclusion of a picture of Ted Kaczynski (20). This picture—which the vast majority of readers would already be familiar with anyway—is included because Baron is discussing Kaczynski, not because the picture itself adds any value. There is nothing about Kaczynski’s image that builds upon Baron’s discussion of his anti-technology terrorism.

Nothing to see here.

But there are other moments in the text when Baron uses images to enhance and clarify his writing. Later in the text, he includes pictures of a photoshopped Abraham Lincoln and Marilyn Monroe (117) and an early portable dumb terminal (97). Both of these images help the reader follow along with Baron’s argument and provide clarity about the claims that he is making. Importantly—and unlike the Kaczynski image—they are also both fully discussed within the text itself.

While academics of the past have primarily only incorporated images into their writing through books, the increasing popularity of digital writing stands to change that completely. Like books, digital writing provides a perfect opportunity for the inclusion of images, and, also like books, demands that digital authors use images in a way that engages readers and enhances the text.

6 thoughts on “A Better Picture: The Use of Images in Writing”

  1. Heather,

    I remember chatting with you about the images in Baron’s text and I agree that there are moments when we could have done without some of them.

    To speak to your larger point about the use of images, however, I would agree, but add that I think images are used now beyond the written texts of academics. I didn’t really think about this until the other day when I was telling my friend in MA that, while they only got rain in that Nor’easter, we got quite a bit of snow. Because I felt that she was not accurately understanding the ridiculous amount of snow based on our AIM conversation, I simply turned the webcam on, snapped a picture out my window, and sent it to her – in the service of impressing the full snow experience we had.

    Going even further, my brother has conversations entirely through snapchat, relying on the images and very little text. I think between texting/picture messaging, instant messaging, and snapchat (among other platforms), as a whole people incorporate images frequently into their written texts.

  2. Caitlin,

    I completely agree about the use of images in non-academic texts. I, too, frequently have lengthy conversations with my little brother over text messages that consist of nothing other than pictures.

    I think what I was trying to say was that academics aren’t given the luxury of using images in their professional lives, except in situations likes books. Although I also think that this will (hopefully) change as digital media becomes more widely used in academic writing.

    1. Non-academic print and digital texts wither and die without images. But I agree about academic texts, Heather. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve included art or other images in an academic paper. Usually they aren’t even in the text itself but hidden away in an appendix. Maybe I’m just stodgey…

      Why do you think academic prose has been text-heavy for so long? I’m curious about whether the rejection (for the most part) of images and other media in academic publication has been more from the authorial or editorial side of things.

  3. It was only last semester that I ever included visuals in an academic paper that I wrote for a literature course, either as an undergraduate or a graduate student. The prospect of formatting those visuals in a Word document was initially what disconcerted me the most. Even beyond the normal process of sizing, centering, and citing, I wasn’t sure how to go about placing them in the text of my essay without them looking gratuitous. I kept asking myself, “How can I include these visuals without it looking like I just put them in here to take up page count?” For an essay that was entirely dependent on examining how the textual and the visual can create a complex relationship (in this case in _Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland_ and the British periodical _Punch_), I felt extra pressure to, in the words of Depeche Mode, “get the balance right.” Ultimately, Word presented various limitations that prevented me from inserting the visuals in direct correspondence with my analysis, so I had to relegate them to what amounted to an appendix of figures at the end of my essay, which makes referencing them during reading a cumbersome activity.

    Aside from my own writing, though, I feel ambivalent about visuals in most of the academic texts I’ve experienced thus far. I use the term ambivalent because I’m never quite sure what to make of those visuals. As Heather points out with Baron, for instance, most of the pictures don’t particularly add anything to his discussion; they simply, and excuse the pun, illustrate sections of his narrative. But as Caitlin rightly pointed out, so much of our social media these days relies on visuals or is entirely image-dependent/image-heavy (like Instagram or Vine). It seems that if we, not just as academics but as writers and readers more broadly, are going to have to learn how to effectively incorporate visuals into our own writing, not just in our digital correspondences, in order to appeal to audiences who are increasingly visually stimulated.

  4. The works of Alain de Botton, my favorite philosopher of our century, always include several common images of the scenes that we might encounter in everyday life and leave them unnoticed. Through his philosophical prose, these apparently simple pictures gain such uniqueness that I find myself staring at them for minutes. His text does not really need those pictures, as he is capable of creating any sort of visual images that he needs in his reader’s mind by words; Still these images never seem extra or decorative. In other word, the images that he uses resonate with the text. After reading The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, I found myself fond of electric pylons’ aestheticism and tried to take pictures of them whenever possible instead of trying to ignore them. (In Tehran you would always have some pylons in the picture if you want to take a long shot.)Digital world demands for audio-visual supplements. How we might create that sort of harmony between the text and images to cherish not only the eyes but also the thoughts of our reader, the harmony that I find in Botton’s works, is of great concern.

  5. Heather,

    I’m glad that you brought this issue up. I’m not completely sure what I think about Baron’s use of images. On the one hand, I actually kind of like that most of them are of a playful sort—as you note, academics could do with more of a sense of fun. But, then, well, most of them aren’t really that funny—in fact, they’re often cheesy and banal, and more distract from his prose (which I often find quite witty) than enhance or even illustrate it.

    Which leads me to a second point about academics and aesthetics. My complaint would be not only that our books and articles don’t look pretty, they don’t sound pretty either. There’s a curious indifference in academic writing to trying to make your prose enact, rather than merely state, your argument. You’d think that a group of people so interested in writing would actually be better at doing it.


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