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Producing Good Figures

We talk a lot on this blog about how to write well and present clear, informative text. However, one of the key elements of a well-written manuscript actually isn’t written at all: your figures! A figure can help you present observations or a large amount of data quickly and efficiently, and is a great way to catch the attention of readers. Readers often go directly to the figures after reading the Abstract to see the most important results; therefore, you need to make sure that they are well prepared, easy to read and, most of all, informative.


Choosing the Right Data

Journals will often have limits on the number of figures you are able to include in the main manuscript, so it’s important to select your figures wisely. Think about what readers or an editor might want to see as a figure if they were reading it:

  • What are your most important results?
  • Do you have images that show your findings unambiguously that would help readers understand them?
  • What patterns are apparent in the data that could be shown graphically to enhance your argument?
  • What data would be easier to explain in a figure then in writing?


Elements of a Good Figure

Once you’ve selected the data you want to use for a figure, it doesn’t end there. To communicate the information effectively, there are several elements to consider in how the figure is presented. Clear labeling, simple presentation, and highlighted points of interest are critical to a figure that is easy to interpret.

Elements of a Good Figure

For example, in the chart above, the authors show a simple pattern of increasing percentage of apoptotic cells with increasing amounts of cadmium. The axes are clearly labelled, including the units, and the data points are simple and easy to interpret. The authors also indicate changes that are statistically significant with asterisks, which would be defined in the figure legend.


Key elements

Kindlin-2 knockdown and focal adhesion localization. A. Confocal immunofluorescent microscopy with anti-β1 integrin (green) and anti-paxillin (red) on C2C12 cells transfected with RNAi and then changed to differentiation media for 2 days. Control cells (scr RNAi) show linear staining consistent with localization to costameres (arrows), as well as punctate focal contact staining (arrowheads). Conversely, focal contact proteins in the kindlin-2 RNAi cells fail to form linear structures and instead are concentrated in unusual appearing puncta (*). (Scale bar = 20 μM).


Similarly, the image shown above is easy to interpret thanks to several key elements. First, the figure has a title that clearly states what this image is showing. The authors then briefly describe the essential methods relevant to the figure, in this case, what stains were used and which colors they are represented by. The main results are then stated, and any key points of note in the image are labeled with indicators, which are also defined in the legend. When presenting images, it is also important to indicate the scale of the images, and this can be done either in the legend or in the figure itself. This way readers now have all the essential information to properly assess and interpret the findings.


Keep these examples in mind as you prepare your figures for use in manuscripts. Once you’ve made them, take a step back and consider if you were a reader unfamiliar with this study, whether there are any details missing you’d need to understand what the author is presenting. Good figures can help entice readers to download and read your full manuscript, and maybe even lead to increased citations, so don’t miss your chance to catch someone’s eye!