Chart Your Content in 4 Easy Steps

Posted: August 16, 2010 in Articles, For Editors
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Shorter, faster, bolder — that is the mantra of today’s editor. For years we’ve heard that people’s attention spans are shrinking, but now consumers want their information as quick and compact as a Tweet. Would you have ever thought that 140-character microblogging would be popular?

As an editor, you have to find the reader’s attention and catch it, trap it and sink your teeth in. You have to keep the copy short, the message fast and the look bold. The best way to do that is make a chart or graph.

This little nugget is hardly news. Every editor knows that a catchy headline, a dynamic photo or a pertinent pie chart is key to getting your reader to stay on the page. But finding the best way to present information to the reader is difficult, and then executing your good idea is yet another hurdle to jump.

Here are a few steps to try next time you’re working with a story that could use a little flavor. Luckily, tons of talented people have given us perfect examples of out-of-this-world charts and graphs that we can check out; I’ve included several links below.

1. Assess what information can be conveyed.

  • First of all, dump the idea that your chart has to illustrate the entire story. Your graphic element is simply the reader’s entry point into the story, so it must be relevant and interesting; it doesn’t have to sum up the content you’re providing.
  • Second, look for any numbers. They’re always the easiest to illustrate and everyone understands them. Men’s Health and BusinessWeek are masters at this craft and can turn any series of numbers into a work of art.
  • Third, look for patterns. The amazing folks at Good Magazine took a story about presidential decision-making and illustrated it with great color, a timeline feel, loads of codes and created a graphic that you’ll want to study for hours.  http://awesome.good.is/goodsheet/goodsheet009First100Days.html
  • If you can’t find a piece of the story that will be well-demonstrated in a chart, do a little extra legwork to create a number or pattern. Take a poll with some related question. If your story is about an elderly man whose life was saved by a dog, ask your readers if they’ve ever seen an animal do something heroic. Ask this question on your magazine’s website and solicit feedback that way. Or, do you have a big Twitter following? Then do a Twit Poll (http://twtpoll.com/). It’s fast and easy, it will be answered by your most avid fans, and it will also serve as a teaser. Your readers will be wondering what’s coming up in the next issue!

2. Determine the level of difficulty. Only very strong designers, and maybe very powerful software, can create some of the amazing graphics you’ll see on these two  sites: http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2007/08/02/data-visualization-modern-approaches/ and http://infosthetics.com/ If you have that kind of ability, shoot for the stars! If you don’t, look at their ideas and decide what level of difficulty you can handle in your given time frame. Often, you can convey the same idea without the high-tech tools.

3. Draw different configurations. I picture things in my head all the time that, once I put them on paper, resemble little more than chicken scratch! But that’s precisely why I do it. After I’ve drawn something, I see the flaws in my idea and can correct them before the designer spends time making the chart a reality. For the last several years, I’ve cut out charts in magazines (usually BusinessWeek) and kept them in a folder on my desk so I can access them quickly. Sometimes what I think should be the Y axis should really be the X, and somtimes I discover it’s not the best way to represent the information at all. Keep a portfolio of charts you like that you can reference easily so you can see what configurations are available to you and which ones make the most sense to readers.

Two really wonderful links to visit are http://www.visual-literacy.org/periodic_table/periodic_table.html (seriously, one of the best finds) and http://42explore.com/graphs.htm. They have tons of useful ideas for creative ways to present data.

4. Execute it. Make sure your chart conveys the data you intended and that readers can catch on quickly, no matter how complex the information. This article from CFO Magazine http://www.cfo.com/article.cfm/13692355/c_13720245?f=insidecfo points out that, no matter how good your graph is, it’s useless if you don’t explain it well and relate it to the copy.

So, make your readers stop on each page by giving their brains a reason to hesitate and analyze what you’ve got going on. Figure out what makes your story chart-able, and increase your readers’ interest.

–Tyler Reed

Editor, The Sidebar Review

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