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Standardized writing styles and standardized graphing styles

Back in the 1700s—JennyD can correct me if I’m wrong here—there was no standard style for writing. You could be discursive, you could be descriptive, flowery, or terse. Direct or indirect, serious or funny. You could construct a novel out of letters or write a philosophical treatise in the form of a novel.

Nowadays there are rules. You can break the rules, but then you’re Breaking. The. Rules. Which is a distinctive choice all its own.

Consider academic writing. Serious works of economics or statistics tend to be written in a serious style in some version of plain academic English. The few exceptions (for example, by Tukey, Tufte, Mandelbrot, and Jaynes) are clearly exceptions, written in styles that are much celebrated but not so commonly followed.

A serious work of statistics, or economics, or political science could be written in a highly unconventional form (consider, for example, Wallace Shawn’s plays), but academic writers in these fields tend to stick with the standard forms. The consensus seems to be that straight prose is the clearest way to convey interesting and important ideas. Serious popular writers such as Oliver Sacks and Malcolm Gladwell follow a slightly different formula, going with the magazine-writing tradition of placing ideas inside human stories. But they still, by and large, are trying to write clear prose.

When it comes to data graphics, though, we’re back in the freewheeling 1700s. Maybe that’s a good thing, I don’t know. But what I do know is there’s no standard way of displaying quantitative information, nor is there any acceptance of the unique virtues of the graphical equivalent of clear prose.

Serious works of social science nowadays use all sorts of data display, from showing no data at all, to tables, to un-designed Excel-style bar charts, to Cleveland-style dot and line plots, to creative new data displays, to ornamental information visualizations. The analogy in writing style would be if some journal articles were written in the pattern of Ezra Pound, others like Ernest Hemingway, and others in the style of James Joyce or William Faulkner.

I won’t try to make the case that everybody should do graphs the way I do. I accept that some people communicate with tables, others prefer infovis, and others prefer no quantitative information at all. I just think it’s interesting that prose style is so standardized—I’ve had submissions to journals criticized on the grounds that my writing is too lively!—but when it comes to display of data and models, it’s the Wild West.

For example . . .

Kaiser points to this graph from the book Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo:

In case you’re curious what’s actually going on here, Kaiser helpfully replots the data in a readable form:

I’d be interested in what my infovis friends would say about this. The best argument I can think of in favor of the Banerjee and Duflo graph, besides its novelty and (perhaps) attractiveness, is that its very difficulty forces the reader to work, to put in so much effort to figure out what’s going on that he or she is then committed to learning more. In contrast, one might argue that Kaiser’s direct plot is so clear that the reader can feel free to stop right there. I don’t really believe this argument—I’d rather have the clear graph and convey more information—but that’s the best I can do.

That said, if a book has dozens of informative Kaiser-style graphs, I can see the benefit of having a few goofy ones just to mix things up a bit.

13 Comments

  1. It’s a simple point, but I think about this often, about how medical data are represented and conveyed.

  2. chris P says:

    If the act of decoding a graph would lead most readers to the insight of the author, that might be a good thing. But, if you lose most of the readership at the same time, that can be bad.

    I was taught that passive voice was fine just to give writing a sense of variety.

  3. Jonathan says:

    I like Doug Almond’s approach to this. If you can show the results in a simple table of the differences in means, then that is always the ideal approach, but everyone is different. And yes, I acknowledge this is not always possible!

    • revo11 says:

      I think the field of economics generally has that attitude, which probably explains why economists are often not very good at making figures (exhibit A above).

  4. Jon M says:

    To be fair, journals are much more standardized in the presentation of information. You might get away with those kind of graphs in a popular science book but I can’t imagine any peer reviewers or editors who would let those graphics in.

  5. It is curious. Andrew, you should read Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, I think you would find it interesting – it is an early prose fiction, at least early in the sense of what we think about the trajectory of the European novel, but Defoe strikingly uses charts of numbers taken from the Bills of Mortality to chart the rise and decline of the plague, so that it is actually an early instance of the sort of thing Helen DeWitt has recently been interested in doing!

  6. Wonks Anonymous says:

    I’m reminded of the discussion of the “classic style” from Clear and Simple as the Truth.

    • Andrew says:

      Wonks:

      I’d never heard of that book. Following the links and reading some excerpts, I can see how the book can be useful to people but the presentation seems a bit oversimplified, not seeming to take into account how something can be very readable and popular in one era and unreadable in another.

  7. I would argue that what Tufte has been trying to do is basically come up with such a standard way of presenting visual information. Certainly comparing infoviz and academic graphics together gives an impression that things are not standardized, but so would comparing the writing in popular science books and academic writings. Academic graphics can be surprisingly similar, if only because the number of software packages to create them is pretty limited. Probably one of the most infamous examples is the constant use of the (terrible) jet colormap which comes with Matlab. You can’t read two papers without encountering it at least once, whether it’s in a high-level journal or on Arxiv. It’s a meme.

    • revo11 says:

      what’s wrong with the jet colormap? It’s not aesthetically pleasing and the use of multiple colors may incorrectly imply distinct level classifications, but it does allow you to differentiate values for a wide dynamic range.

  8. I agree about the wide dynamic range, but red > green > blue? That doesn’t make sense. It emphasizes differences where there are none. I asked about a graph to a non-scientist once and she couldn’t figure out the color scheme. This guy has a long rant about this: http://abandonmatlab.wordpress.com/2011/05/07/lets-talk-colormaps/.

  9. Interesting article, and very inspiring! It’s a great model to think about, in particular to realize how young the fields still are (just like academic writing was in the 1700s).

    I elaborated a bit on your thoughts over on my blog: http://eagereyes.org/criticism/metaphor-visualization-writing

  10. Kaiser says:

    Your point is true in general. But I notice that certain publications have rules for their charts. The Economist, for example, has a very limited number of chart types that they use. One of them is the donut chart which I hate.