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.
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.