One figure at a time, please

(My writing pet peeves, part 3)

When you’re reading a thesis or a paper, have you ever come across a sentence like this one?

“Diet overlap between species increased from 2004 – 2009 in four of six comparisons: ribbon snake – green snake, mud snake – milk snake, milk snake – ribbon snake, and milk snake – green snake (Fig. 2A-F, Figs. 3 – 6, Table 3).”*

I bet you have (unless you’re reading an entirely different literature than I am).  I come across such sentences often, and every time, they make me see red.

Have you ever written a sentence like that?  Then we need to talk.

It’s simple, really.  When you refer to multiple figures and/or tables at once, you ask the reader to do your work for you.  It’s the writer’s job, not the readers, to find and point to the pattern in the data that supports a particular point.  A reader who’s asked to inspect several figures and a table in order to find that pattern is a reader whose patience is being tested.  And, given the size of our literature and the demands on everyone’s time, that’s a reader who’s likely to move on to some other paper.

By the way, it’s bad enough to send the reader to several figures, but it’s even worse if you mix figures and table in a single reference**.  Figures and tables are very different constructs, requiring different kinds of decoding – so you’re asking the reader not just to do a complex task, but to switch between two different complex tasks.  Well, more than that, actually, because every time you refer to a figure (the same goes for a table), you ask the reader to leave the text, navigate to the figure, switch to the different encoding of a figure (vs. text), and then navigate back to pick up the thread.  This is a significant task already, and a good writer tries to make that task easier, not harder.

I’m pretty sure I know where this habit comes from.  The snake sentence betrays that its author came at things from the wrong perspective.  If you write a sentence like that, it’s because you made a bunch of figures and tables that show your data – as opposed to deciding on the story you want to tell your readers, and then constructing figures and tables showing how your data support that story.  It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.  It’s one part of a mental reorientation away from a narrative of what you did and what you found, and towards a deliberate focus on what you want your reader to understand from reading your paper.  The former is the way we’re often encouraged to write in undergraduate laboratories, and it’s a hard habit to break; but the latter is how we write good, clear papers that our colleagues will read without resentment.

So: one figure at a time***.  And while we’re at it: readers will be grateful for more than just a cavalier “Figure 1”.  Try “compare slopes of traces in Figure 1” or “Figure 1; notice greater dispersion in panel A vs. panel B”.

Reading science is hard. Let’s not make it harder than necessary.

© Stephen Heard ( February 9, 2017

More of my writing pet peeves: Statistics and Significant Digits, and Friends Don’t Let Friends Use “cf.”

This post is based in part on material from The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, my guidebook for scientific writers. You can learn more about it here.

*^This is a real sentence, from a manuscript I once reviewed, except superficially disguised to protect the oh-so-very-guilty.

**^Please don’t read my old papers to see if my own nose is clean on this one.  I won’t like what you find.  I used to be a big fan of “X was significantly higher than Y (Figure 1, Table 1)”, where the figure showed the pattern and the table had the stats.  That’s not a horrible way to present things, but I should have invested a couple of extra words and written “X was higher than Y (Figure 1), and the difference was significant (Table 1)”.  This is one place not to worship at the altar of brevity.

***^And don’t take this as a suggestion to simply build a 19-panel figure.  See pp. 112-113 of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing for my rant about that.

15 thoughts on “One figure at a time, please

  1. crowther

    Hi Steve — I _have_ written a sentence like that one. A paper currently under review (about what students can learn from writing songs about science) includes the following sentence: “The connections that students made between scientific and musical elements fell into two categories, one exploring the factual content related to their topic (Figure 1, Tables 1-3), and the other exploring the emotional impact of their topic (Figure 1, Tables 4-5).” This would seem to be a gross violation of your advice. But maybe it’s OK to cite multiple figures/tables if used as a general overview? Like, “Tables 1-3 are about X, whereas Tables 4-5 concern Y”?


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Well, Greg, no rule is absolute! But I’m not going to give you a complete pass. I do like the version you end with better than most examples, because it contains helpful metadiscourse: “the reason I’m pointing you to a whole bunch of figures at once is that this batch does thing X, and this other batch does thing Y, and you can see this best if you look at them all at once rather than one at a time”. But is that really true? Couldn’t you start with your first (real) sentence, but shorn of all the figure references; then introduce each figure or table one at a time with the point it makes, and THEN wrap up with something like “the contrast between the examples of X (figures a/b/c) and the examples of Y (figures d/e/f) is striking, and important because…”? In other words, do your many-figures reference as an “As I have shown you” rather than as a “Go check this out”?

      And on a related point: that sound like a very, very cool paper!


      1. crowther

        Interesting idea, although I think I like my way better, which may relate to the specifics of the paper. I won’t paste in the entire results section here, but I basically do the multi-table overview first, followed by the table-by-table summaries (Table 1 shows this; Table 2 shows this; etc.), whereas I think you are suggesting the opposite (table-by-table comments first, then multi-table summary at end). Your way would be nice if there was an exciting conclusion to be drawn from contrasting Tables 1-3 with Tables 4-5, but I don’t think there is, so therefore I favor orienting the reader to the basic difference between Tables 1-3 and Tables 4-5 and leaving it at that. One other note: I think your parenthetical encouragement to use phrasing like “Figure 1; notice greater dispersion in panel A vs. panel B” is perhaps the best advice of all here. Scientists don’t usually write like that because it Just Isn’t Done That Way, but your version is oh so much friendlier and helpful. Glad you like the sound of the paper! It will eventually appear in Science Education, assuming that our resubmission has made a believer out of Reviewer 2….


  2. Macrobe

    Bingo. After painfully editing two proposals for a wildlife biologist I work with (as a retired biologist volunteer), we had a heart-to-heart chat about her writing experience. She went through her BS program without having to write a single paper. She has no writing skills. None. My jaw dropped. And I wonder if this is the new norm for baccalaureate science degrees in the US.

    i was pondering on a gift for her before I leave and decided upon a scientific writing guide. Based upon this post, and others on your blog, I suspect your book may be an excellent choice. Scientific writing is in many ways like any writing; it tells a story. I learned that early in my career when writing about science for children and the general public. (My teaching style also included that approach.) Story-context is how the human brain thinks. I don’t know of any guide or manual that approaches scientific writing that way.

    I hope the general content of your post here is in your book, too. 😉


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      It is. Chapter 7 is called “Finding and telling your story”. And there’s a section in Ch 15 “Results” called “Relating figures to text” that talks about the more specific issues. Yes, I’ve been known to recycle content 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Margaret Kosmala

    Well… but here’s a question for you. What if my point is supported by a nice graph, but I also believe in providing the raw data behind that graph? (I hate when authors don’t supply the actual data.) So I’d have something like “Cats are better than dogs (Fig 1, Supplemental Table 1).” I don’t actually expect the average reader to go look in the supplement while reading the paper. But if they were *very interested* and maybe wanted to cite the paper or use its data, the raw data is there for inspection.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I *just* reviewed a paper that used this construction! I think it needs just a little more: “Cats are better than dogs (Fig 1;. raw data in Supplemental Table 1)”. As a reader, I resent being asked to look at supplementary material without being told what I’ll find there to reward me for the effort. With that little bit, I can decide whether I need to see it, and I can have a head start on interpreting what I’m going to see because I know how it fit into the story.

      Liked by 1 person

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