Visualization: What Is It Good For?

Uncategorized / Monday, November 5th, 2012
Jessie Reeder

By Jessie Reeder. Jessie is the TA Assistant Director of the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also a dissertator in literary studies, focusing on 19th century British Literature and Latin American revolution.

Every instructor in our Writing Center knows the blue record sheets we stock. They provide a simple grid for marking down the date, the time of each appointment, the students’ names, and a few notes about each conference. The front side of these sheets is a study in order. I was not, however, a kid who placed my toys into neat rows; I was a finger-painting, dirt-tracking chaos-maker. This is probably why I almost exclusively use the back side of the blue sheets, which is, delightfully, completely blank. At the end of every shift I teach, the back of my blue sheet is covered in arrows, inscrutable Venn diagrams, crude drawings of staircases, circled and re-circled symbols… Basically, if our civilization crumbles and the archeologists of a future age find only my blue Writing Center sheets, they will likely conclude that we were a race of madmen.

This tendency—unsurprisingly—spills off of the blue sheet and into most aspects of my teaching. During an average shift in the Writing Center you can find me ripping the staple out of a student’s draft so that I can spread the pages on the table, drawing an idea map while the student talks, scrawling symbols next to each paragraph that correspond to topics, or bee-lining for the “highlighter” tool in the student’s word processing software. This is something for which I seem to feel the need to apologize. I hear myself say the following with alarming frequency: “I’m sorry; it’s just that I’m sort of a visual processor.”

But why do I apologize? Inherent in that “sorry” is the assumption that:

  1. I’m the only one at the table who does her best thinking through visualizations, and/or
  2. These visualization strategies are somehow extraneous to what we’re really doing, which is working on writing.

Over time I have come to believe that these statements are not only false, but that their exact opposites are true. The first assumption, that other writers don’t need visualization techniques, breaks down easily. Where the modern disciplines of psychology and pedagogy converge, they have given chaos-kids like me hip terms to describe our messes. Do you have trouble paying attention during long oral presentations? Recall faces better than names? Are you more likely to remember this blog post if it has a high volume of images? Chances are good you’re a “visual learner.” Do you have a good sense of direction? Create detailed mental pictures? Learn best through charts and diagrams? You might be graced with “spatial intelligence.” So-called visual and spatial thinkers are contrasted against those who learn by listening or interacting, or those for whom interpersonal dynamics or logical algorithms make more sense. These schemas suggest that a great many of us—if not a majority of us—fall into the visual and/or spatial camps. This is now a widely accepted pedagogical axiom. Cue the rise of PowerPoint in lecture halls across the nation.

And yet, these theories that give name and validity to visual learning still imply that they belong to a subset of the learning (or for us, writing) population. That even if a majority of us thrive in visual learning environments, not all of us do. I want to trouble this, particularly in the context of the Writing Center.

A sample of my blue sheets

On an anecdotal level, I can report the high number of “Aha!” moments my students have when I use a visualization. Often these are to meant to help me understand the student’s idea. The diagram I draw functions something like a translation into my own visual language so that I can understand the crux of the matter and translate my thoughts back to the student. But I notice that we often end up having a productive conversation in the visual language itself, one that involves reordering ideas, making new connections, and finding gaps in logic—key facets of the writing. For example, I recently worked with an undergraduate who was having trouble articulating the meaning of “imagined community.” I decided to map what she was describing, and we both realized that she was trying to simultaneously define imagined community as extending across space, and through time, which was muddling her language. We spent most of the session playing with this drawing so that she could figure out what she wanted to say. Another day I worked with a student whose paragraphs seemed disorganized, but I couldn’t pinpoint why. She had her draft on her laptop, and I asked her permission to use the highlighter tool to color-code her sentences based on their purpose. We saw an oscillating green-yellow-green-yellow pattern as she bounced between summarizing existing research, and offering her own argument. The impact this visualization had on her was so much more profound than I could have done with my own clunky explanations; not to mention that it transcended a language barrier we were struggling with. A student in one of my composition classes who had trouble catching his own typos benefited immediately simply from switching fonts and disrupting his eyes’ expectations.

What I am coming to believe is that visualizations are not, in fact, extraneous or supplementary to the writing process, nor are they only useful for certain kinds of learners. More and more I believe that writing is already inherently visual, and that visual thinking—whether or not it is your “natural” learning style—is key to writing well.

Recently, I co-taught a Writing Center workshop on using the software Scrivener to manage long writing projects. Most of the students in the room were graduate students working on dissertations, theses, or research proposals. I began by confessing that I myself turned to Scrivener—essentially a powerful organizer—because of my frustration with trying to work simultaneously across so many different documents containing my research, outlining, note-taking, and drafting. My visual brain found it maddening to constantly lose (literal) sight of one idea while I worked on another. I showed a screen capture of a typical workspace before I started using Scrivener. This unwieldy jumble of documents may raise an instinctive, familiar flight response in some of my fellow writers:


And then I displayed an image of my singular dissertation file with Scrivener:


And my new, blissfully organized workspace:


Something happened in that darkened computer lab that’s rare in teaching: an audible, collective gasp. An immediate recognition of the power of this kind of organization. We are not alone, visual-writers. We are not alone. That is because, I think, writing is already visual.

What Scrivener has done for me is not merely organizational—although that feature is certainly fabulous. More importantly, it allows me to write while having my eyes constantly on the larger structure of my project. It forces my brain to make constant reckoning with multiple pieces of my argument at once, and by doing so, has had profound impacts on my ideas and my writing. Which is to say that the visual aspect is not merely a tool to get me where I want to go more efficiently; it is a constitutive feature of the end result.

In fact, Scrivener is simply a formalization of practices I was already cobbling together. Perhaps you will recognize yourself in these necessity-born devices I would (and still) use during my own frantic writing sessions. I find that as soon as a physical page gets flipped over, or text scrolls up out of view on a screen, it’s almost entirely gone from my mental space. “Out of sight, out of mind” is not just an appropriate axiom; it’s a serious barrier to my ability to synthesize while I write. Hence I rely on printing the pages of a draft and laying them out on the floor—even if there are 30 or 40 of them. When I need to radically reorganize, the scissors and tape come out and a Frankendraft is born. If my task requires synthesizing a number of different pieces of research, I literally surround myself with them at my desk.

When we do these things we are attempting, I believe, to compensate for visual loss, and for the corresponding rise in mental disorganization.

On a more fundamental level, I believe there is something inherently visual about language and composition. When inked on the page or illuminated on the screen, writing takes a visual form. But even in oral composition or recitation, language itself is a medium for putting images into our minds.

However, I digress into the philosophical, when what I really want to talk about is the practical. The point I want to make is not that all writers or all writing necessarily partake of the same processes. Truly, I realize that not all brains and eyes operate alike. And yet, practically speaking, I believe that Writing Center teaching needs to rely much more heavily and purposefully on the visual.

We have already institutionalized the process of reading aloud because of a deep, fundamental belief in the power of auditory processing. We take it as a given that students will learn from the simple act of vocalizing their own prose. At least in UW-Madison’s Writing Center, we have almost every single student read their writing aloud to us, based on our faith that it is a useful tool and properly a writing task. What is reading if not writing’s tango partner?

I would like to make the same case for visualizing. What is the organization of ideas, the hierarchization of concepts, and even the proper use of grammar, if not the translation of visual schematics into prose form? And how can we write what we mean to say if we don’t have a proper grasp on the shape it takes?

When we ask students to read aloud, we have ready-made explanations for why this practice is valuable. Unfortunately, we seem to have less clear language for asking students to diagram, to color-code, or to change their font. At the beginning of this post I described myself using visualization strategies with my students and apologizing for it. What I really should be sorry for is that in all of those scenarios, it was me doing the diagramming. If visualization were merely a way for my spatial brain to interpret students’ ideas, then that would be okay. But if visualization is actually a key component of the writing process, then I owe it to my students to teach them how to do it, to explain why, and to spend time on these practices. I already know the value of spreading out the pages of an essay across the table, so why am I doing it for the students? Why not:

It’s hard to get a sense of your argument without being able to see the whole essay; how can we do that?

What do you think we would learn if we color-coded these sentences?

If you had to draw the relationship between these two ideas, would you make a Venn diagram, two concentric circles, or something else altogether?

I think that approaches like these not only provide the students with the benefits of a visual model, but also help them think about how they might benefit from using them more often and more purposefully. Of course, I’m far from the first to connect writing to visualization, but some of the best techniques reside in handbooks for creative writers, or for grade-school students. The implication is that grown-up, academic writing means graduating from the visual imagination. But I never stopped being that chaos-kid mucking about. I didn’t graduate from her. In fact, lately she’s teaching me that embracing her is actually the key to order.

I would love to read about your own strategies for visualizing your ideas and your writing, and/or tutoring with visualization techniques. Please leave a comment so we can start a conversation!

19 Replies to “Visualization: What Is It Good For?”

  1. This is a compelling argument, Jessie, that we are leaving one of the most important teaching tools on the table when our discussions with students never get more visually adventurous than an outline. In the post-learning-styles pedagogical landscape, educators argue that ALL students learn better when we find as many approaches as possible to make our case. How then can tutors like me, who have no instinctual or experiential techniques for teaching visually, learn to use visual-learning techniques?

  2. I learned about the importance of using visual approaches to writing instruction from a student in my intermediate composition course 2 years ago. In a one-on-one conference, we were struggling to articulate what her main argument was for a paper. She pulled out a piece of paper and started drawing out her argument with circles and lines–no apology, no explanation, no defense. This woman had simply learned to do this, and didn’t question it. It made me realize the importance of teaching others to do it who would benefit from it.

    I suppose I ultimately take the view that whatever we do in the Writing Center session can be taken or left by the students the next time they work. So why not try out some visual techniques (even something really simple like highlighting sentences) and see if it takes? If you work with the student again, you can do the same thing, or try something else–just like with other techniques we use.

    Mike–there was talk at our last staff meeting about an Ongoing Education session on using visual techniques especially for writers with learning disabilities–as this can often be helpful. Sounds like there are multiple reasons for such an OGE!

    Thanks for this great post, Jessie!

  3. thanks for writing such a wonderful post, jessie! i like that you not only make a case for this type of approach as valid, but you also push us to think about how this might actually be a useful and productive approach to incorporate into our writing center toolbox. although i’ve used the same type of visualization approach myself in meetings, i’ve only done so when i’m having particular trouble understanding a concept or the relation between different concepts that the writer is trying to convey. but your post really makes me think that this might be beneficial for the writer as well, and should be something that i make an effort to add to our mutual approach to understanding and clarifying ideas during a session.

  4. Ironically, I learn best from precisely these kinds of dynamic visual processes (I’m a product of the digital age through and through) but never actually use these as tools during my sessions. That is, UNTIL TODAY! And it was great. I did precisely what you suggested here — I had a student highlight different sentences in a super-long paragraph using Microsoft Word — and she immediately saw the patterns in her writing. I had been trying to explain those patterns verbally for the better part of five minutes, and two minutes of visualization immediately got to the heart of the matter. So, long story short, this advice rules.

    Also, this just reminded of one of my favorite David McCandless visualizations (and there’s a man who knows how to make pedagogical use of the visual). This shows what he calls the “Bandwidth of the Senses” — that is, how quickly we process particular sensory phenomena:

  5. Check out the book Back of the Napkin for a guide through making handy diagrams to think through problems and express solutions. It’s aimed a business-y audience, but I think it works for quantitative and other researchers too. It’s a quick read, especially if you skim the (often redundant) words and absorb the pictures.

    -A satisfied Writing Center customer

  6. Thanks for all of these great suggestions! I especially like some of the smaller ones, like changing your font as a way of making your writing look “new” and therefore less familiar to tired eyes trying to revise. As someone who is not necessarily visual, it is helpful to see what some of these concrete methods you use are. Also, now I’m wondering if I would benefit from Scrivener, too…

  7. Phenomenal post, Jessie. I actually just recently had a breakthrough moment with one of my freshman comp students, who apparently is very much a visual learner. Her first paper–a literacy self-portrait–was all over the place, and very unfocused. In it, she wrote almost in passing that she loved using different fonts and colors of text to represent her ideas and her moods, and she always felt trapped by having to write in black Times New Roman. Given that this was supposed to be a self-portrait, I actually made that insight of hers into my key suggestion for revision. If you’re trying to capture your lived experience as a writer, why not go nuts with colors and fonts? I thought it would just allow her a bit more freedom, so she could stop worrying about presentation and work on more substantial issues.

    And for some reason, this worked like gangbusters! I got back a dazzling display of color and format, including the much-maligned comic sans. But more importantly, for some reason her ability to go crazy with presentation made her focus on the content of that paper much more. As her fonts swirled around, her paragraphs got much stronger, more specific, and actually fit together in a way that was deeply impressive. Apparently, by letting her mind explore with different presentations, she was able to think about the content and her ideas as things that need to, you know, cohere. It was the single best revision I’ve seen this semester.

    So, yeah. Visual innovation apparently rocks.

  8. This is such an interesting post, Jessie! As someone who is interested in researching multimodal composing and literacy practices, I am really fascinated by seeing how you use visuals (modes beyond writing) in tutoring sessions.

    I can absolutely relate to the kind of apologizing you mentioned for bringing visuals into a conversation about writing. And I think you’re so right–and you’re on to a really interesting tension and question–when you say that “there is something inherently visual about language and composition.”

    Stephanie, I’m glad you brought up the OGE based on visuals and multiple modes of communication that was brought up at the past staff meeting. Jessie, your post really made me think about how valuable a session like that would be!

    Your post really has me thinking about how I can make visuals more of a part of my own writing center practice–and of how and There’s so many things to like about your post–there is something inherently visual about language and composition.

  9. Thanks for the inspiring post – I definitely appreciate this approach to writing. Unfortunately, if you’re not a member of the Apple crowd, Scrivener can be somewhat of a prim experience. I am currently giving mindmapping software (Mindjet) a try to see how far it can help my writing process.

  10. Thanks for this really fascinating post, Jessie. There’s a lot in here that I’ve never thought about – such as suggesting a student change fonts in order to see their draft in a new way – and there are lots of things that I suspect many of us have mulled over but never so clearly articulated. I agree that there are inherent aspects of writing that are visual, and that we should incorporate more visual tools into our teaching.

  11. Jessie, Your blog post inspired me to respond with a visual, but I can’t upload a jpeg with my comment, so I’ll have to resort to a more primitive visual representation (below).


  12. Thanks for the interesting, though-provoking post, Jessie. Probably the most important thought it provoked in me was a reminder that the writers I’ll work with won’t all think like I do.

    Like others above, I’m more particularly struck by the writer who catches typos more easily in a different font. I wonder how far we can push that extremely insightful idea beyond just typos, maybe to other divergences from standard English and even beyond. Brian’s comment above suggests that self-expression depends not just on the words, but on the visual. At the same time, I think Brian’s comment suggests that we can’t assume what students’ own normal expectations are for their writing, visually. I see about as many hand-written, hand-revised drafts as I do those that are on a computer from start to finish, and I often work with students as the draft is going from pen-on-paper to the screen. While we’re talking about the visual and expectations, I’ll say that seeing this variety of composing processes makes me wonder how this transformation, a very visual-centric one, affects things like self-expression, writer confidence, control of and divergence from standard written English, and so on. And I wonder how awareness of and attention to this transformation, kinesthetic as well as visual, should affect my tutoring practice.

    Lastly, I think it’s important that you remind us that, although we use reading-aloud to move from writing to speech, writing itself is already visual, and what’s more, there are other visual ways to approach thought and language beyond our typical writing. You give several great examples of those ways.

  13. Jessie, I read this a few days ago and wanted to thank you for getting inside my head: yesterday at the Writing Center a student came to see me with an incredibly detailed and long outline for a literary paper, but she was still having a hard time forming her argument. Your blog popped into my head, and I quickly drew a set of concentric circles and said that from what I could tell, the prompt was asking her primarily about “affect,” and wrote that in the middle of the center circle. She said “oh, what about a web?” and then proceeded to map out her essay herself using her own web idea, entirely throwing out my circle drawing, which led directly to her being able to come up with a great thesis by the end of the session. It was pretty awesome.

  14. Terrific post Jessie. There is so much in here, and so many comments that echo my own thoughts (especially Andy’s recognition of the wide variety of writers we work with and Elisabeth’s increasing determination to try Scrivner), but what really strikes me the most is that you’ve put a name to something that I do both in my own writing and when I am working with students. The arrows, the circles, the need to map out in space what is going on in words–it’s as if I need to put all of the bright and shiny ideas into a constellation of thought before I can really know what I’m trying to say. For me, this kind of mapping work helps me move beyond the ideas I am exploring and into the relationships between those ideas. Often these relationships sit invisibly between paragraphs or sentences, and mapping everything out makes them more explicit, more real.

    I haven’t gotten into colors yet, but after reading your post I can imagine it coming soon…..

    Thanks Jessie- great post.

  15. Jessie, your thoughts on visual teaching techniques have inspired me to reflect on the two ways in which we online writing center instructors visually present information to writers via email instruction.

    Using our current online system, writers have the option to paste their text into a box (like the one in which I’m typing right now) or upload their text as a Word document. If they choose the former option, they receive in return an email with their text embedded in it and our comments embedded in their text. We explicitly direct their attention to our embedded comments by noting that they are bolded, bracketed, and therefore (hopefully) easy to find. Presumably, the writer then visually scans the email (in which most if not all of the text’s original formatting is lost), attempting to distinguish our voice from his or her own.

    In contrast, if a writer chooses to upload their text as a Word document, we typically insert comments into the margins of the text. Brackets and bold black font are replaced with a neat vertical row of colored boxes. Each comment box is labeled with our name, making it easy to see at a glance where the writer’s voice ends and where our voice begins. The writer thus receives in return what I believe to be a much more visually coherent document. I suspect that the writer is better able to locate, read, and comprehend our comments.

    I realize that not all writers use Word and therefore may not be able to upload their documents to our online system. But for those who do use Word, why not encourage them to choose this option? What are the benefits of using “good old-fashioned” brackets and bold font, if any? Is it possible that there are some writers for whom this visual presentation of information is more useful?

  16. This is a fabulous post, Jessie, and particularly compelling for me because it describes so much of my own practice. I began to feel like Scrivener should be compensating me for the incessant rave reviews I have given in my appointments and to my friends. Indeed, it began to feel like Scrivener should be a corporate sponsor for the Dissertation Writing Camps this summer; I continually turned to it when working with dissertators for, as you describe in your post, it facilitates a powerful visual experience of writing that also prompts important connections about our arguments. I find the cork board feature especially helpful for rethinking or exploring the structure of our writing.

    In my Writing Center appointments, I have often longed for a pair of scissors, so that I could begin to cut up slips of paper or pieces of a draft and work through the structure of an argument or group the studies in a literature review. Yet, when reflecting on your post and on my own practices, I find that it is in taking writing off the screen and onto paper that I can best draw on visualization in my own writing and with my students. With greater frequency, students come to the Writing Center with their laptops instead of a printed draft. This tendency clearly speaks to larger trends: the cost or access to printing, environmental concerns about the use of paper, the ease of digital technology. I envy your agility with the track pad, as I tend to be slow and awkward in working with students’ computers. What is the role or the value of paper for you? How much of the visualization you rely on in your teaching is the product of paper? And, do we need to attend more carefully to the use and value of printed drafts alongside the fabulous forms of digital instruction we offer?

  17. Jessie, thanks for this insightful post! I am currently trying to answer the research question, “How do I make students buy into the idea of multimodal composing that is integral to the way I see writing?” and I had not thought about using visual techniques like these to help with the process. My students frequently draw to brainstorm, and final products they hand in include visual components. They create blogs that include visuals and they analyze visual artifacts of various kinds. However, I’ve never gone as in depth with how visuals can be part of the process, can be ways of getting unstuck and of literally seeing your argument differently.

    As I’ve worked more in email instruction, I’ve begun to think more about the kinds of visual strategies you mention in your post. You suggest ways for me to bring these into my classroom and my in person teaching.

Comments are closed.