Can I use a figure or table in my essay?

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Yes. Figures and tables don’t tend to feature as prominently in essays as in the more common varieties of papers that come out of the sciences. This is because the data most commonly used as evidence in an essay often come in the form of quotations or theories rather than statistics or measurements. Still, you should consider figures and tables to be tools available to you should you decide they will aid your essay.

Tables

Under normal circumstances, you won’t have occasion to use a table in an essay, since most essays don’t catalogue large amounts of data over various categories, and an essayist can often just as clearly describe the data she has to discuss. Occasionally, however, a table will be appropriate in an essay to provide visual simplification of an idea discussed in the text. A “prisoner’s dilemma” (something philosophers and economists sometimes discuss) is perhaps shown more effectively in a table than in text, for example.

The following introduction of a classic prisoner’s dilemma is complimented well by the table that follows it:

Example: Table for visual simplification
In a common version of the prisoner’s dilemma, we imagine that you and an accomplice are being questioned for a crime you’ve committed together. You are unable to communicate with each other, but your sentences depend on each other’s choices. You each have the choice to admit to the crime or not, and there are four possible outcomes (see Table 1). The challenge is to decide on your best course of action.

Table 1: Possible outcomes of a common prisoner’s dilemma
You confessYou do not confess
Accomplice confessesBoth serve 5 yearsYou serve 7 yearsAccomplice serves 1
Accomplice does not confessYou serve 1 yearAccomplice serves 7Both serve 3 years

Compare the ease of comprehension enabled by the table to the equivalent detail given in the text that would replace the table:

Example: Explanation in text instead of a table
In the best outcome for you, you admit to the crime and your accomplice does not, in which case you serve one year in jail, and your accomplice serves seven. In the second best outcome for you, neither you nor your accomplice admits to the crime, and you both serve three years. In the third best outcome, you both admit to the crime, and you both serve five years. In the worst outcome, your accomplice admits guilt and you do not, in which case you serve seven years and she serves one.

In cases such as this, you could reasonably prefer the table, since it is a more efficient and effective way to communicate the requisite information. Even though essays don’t as often use the amount of data you normally see in tables, they can be used strategically and effectively in cases such as this.

Figures

Once in a while figures will also aid communication in an essay. As with tables, you can in the service of clarity consider using a figure (defined as any visual representation other than a table, including pictures, maps, graphs, etc.).

The key is to be certain that the figure serves a clear purpose and aids your reader’s understanding of your argument. In an essay that compares painters or painting styles, for example, it will be useful (sometimes even essential) to include representative figures showcasing the differences. In this case, these figures will serve as the material to which you can direct your analysis, drawing attention to certain aspects of the art in the same way that you might quote a poem and then discuss its features.

The myriad other types of figures that can be useful in essays include maps in history essays, graphs presenting statistics in sociology essays, musical scores in aesthetics or music studies essays, and much more.

Be sure that your tables and figures are useful, and use them sparingly, but feel free to find a home for them in your essay.

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Article by Shane Bryson

Shane finished his master’s degree in English literature in 2013 and has been working as a writing tutor and editor since 2009. He began proofreading and editing essays with Scribbr in early summer, 2014.

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