How to Format an Essay With Visual Elements

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

Visual elements can aid the reader in comprehending an essay if they are formatted properly. In this lesson, you'll learn how to appropriately format visual elements in an essay.

Using Visual Elements

With any genre of essay, there comes a time when adding some sort of visual element is useful, so that your reader can get the most out of your essay. Visual elements include basically any part of your essay that isn't straight text, such as pictures or tables. There are a few things that you have to remember, though, when deciding what visual elements to include. First of all, visual elements should complement or add to the body of your paper, not replace it. If you have a picture or a table, you need to refer to it in the text as well.

In addition, graphics (the images or tables you use) need to be treated just like any research you did for the body of the paper. Always include the sources for graphs, tables and pictures. If you created them yourself, give the source for the information you include in them. It's important to always tell the reader where your information comes from.

Basic Formatting

In addition to graphics, visual elements of a paper can also include aspects like headings and layout. Formatting for these will vary a little bit depending on the citation style you are using, and so you should be sure you know the proper formatting for your style. One good source for that type of information would be the OWL (online writing lab) at Purdue, which gives detailed formatting information, especially for APA and MLA, two of the most common citation styles. The Purdue OWL is free and available for anyone to use.

However, there are some details about headings and layout that stay the same across styles. For one, headings and subheadings should always be simple and relevant. Make sure any that you use are actually necessary, since you don't want to break up a paper too much unless it will actually be helpful to the reader. Subheadings are sometimes a great addition, but they are not a substitute for transitions. Make sure your paper still works as a cohesive unit.

With regards to layout, the placement of graphics is important. They should fall under the relevant headings or subheadings, and they shouldn't be placed too far away from where they are referred to in the text. You want it to be easy for your reader to look at the figure when you talk about it.


Just like headings, the format of graphics changes a little between styles, but there are some consistent aspects. One is that they always need to have a caption. Even a seemingly self-explanatory table should have a brief caption to ensure the reader knows what they are looking at. For example, even if your table has the title 'Level of Mercury in Bluefin Tuna', it would also have a caption saying 'Figure 1 shows the level of mercury in bluefin tuna over the last 10 years.' See the image below for an example of how this might look.

Figure 1 shows the changing literacy rates in Pakistan
Graph example

You'll notice that the sample caption gives the table a label- 'Figure 1'. Graphics in your essay need to be labeled sequentially to make it easy to refer back to them in the text. That way, in your essay, you can say 'In figure 1...', rather than 'In the figure about mercury in bluefin tuna...' This makes it much easier for your reader to understand your essay, and it makes it easier for you as the writer, as well.

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