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Article / Multimodal Communication

Using Academic Styles and Visual Elements

Roy K. Humble / 31 July 2020

This is Part 4 of a four-part series on multimodal communication that's intended as a supplement to The Humble Argument. Part 1 provides a general introduction to multimodal communication. Part 2 introductions the central concepts and terminology of multimodal communication. Part 3 provides an overview of the general multimodal expectations that college professors have for your college paper. This article wraps things up with more specific guidelines for different academic disciplines and some help with using visual elements within college papers.

In the college paper's rhetorical situation, you're usually limited just two modes of communication. The primary mode is linguistic. You translate your ideas into words and group them together in sentences, paragraphs, and sections of your paper. The supporting mode is visual. You illustrate your ideas with images, and you format your paper according to genre conventions so that it looks like you know what you're doing.

To help you make the most of the linguistic mode, you have the whole Humble Argument or Humble Essay to guide you, so read them closely. Commit important sections to memory. Share those with your closest friends. If you don't have a copy, go buy a copy for yourself. You won't regret it.

To help you make the most of the visual mode, we'll look at four ways to make your paper make you look like you know what you're doing:

  1. Follow the Assignment Instructions
  2. Follow General Formatting Conventions
  3. Use Appropriate Academic Style Guides
  4. Use Visual Elements within Your Paper

We covered the first two methods in Part 3 of this series, "The Multimodal College Paper." We'll cover the second two in this article.

3. Use Appropriate Academic Style Guides

To reach the higher levels of professional appearance, you have to follow an academic style guide for whatever discipline you're writing within. These guides are actual books that academic writers and editors have created to make it easier for editors to process all the manuscripts that professors have to writer to earn tenure. The guidelines create an ecosystem in which all the manuscripts look the same and can thus be judged by their content rather than their appearance. You will be required to use these styles in upper-division classes and research-based writing projects, but these guides take your professionalism to a higher level whenever you use them, even in a two-page response to a Langston Hughes poem.

These rules are mostly about how to give credit to sources of information, which is called formal documentation. Because there are so many different types of sources and ways to access them, those rules can become shockingly complicated. Curious about how to give credit to a source that is cited in another source that you found in an electronic search in the library last Monday? Here's how the MLA style guide wants you to cite it in the middle of your paper:

Even a noted traditional composition instructor allows that "a few multimodal advocates will give you the option to create magazine-style layouts for your papers" (Humble).

At the end of the paper, the guide tells you to provide this full set of bibliographic information:

Humble, Roy K. "The Multimodal College Paper."Humble Writing, humblewriting.com/humble-multimodal/multimodal-college-paper. Accessed 25 March 2020.

As if that wasn't challenging enough for the student writer, different disciplines have different styles of documentation and formatting rules for you to use. That MLA style is used in text-heavy disciplines like literature, religion, and philosophy. If you're in the social sciences, you'll probably use an APA style. It focuses on the timeliness of sources in those quickly changing disciplines. If you're writing a paper for your chemistry, you'll might use the ACS system. If you're writing a history paper, you'll probably be expected to use the Chicago note-bibliography system.

The good news for you, student writer, is that your lower division professors are mostly happy to see that you're no longer writing with green ink on wide-ruled notebook paper and that you've finally stopped dotting your i's with little hearts and smiley faces. When you settle into your major, you'll have to learn the finer points of academic manuscript style, but even then, you'll only have to learn the system that your academic major uses.

The also-good news is that a style guide's rules for formatting your paper are much simpler than its rules for formal documentation. That's why it makes sense for you to learn the formatting rules now. It's not that hard to learn, and it boosts your credibility as a serious student.

"This person must be a serious student because she's following MLA / APA / ACS formatting conventions," your professor will think. "I don't even have toreadthis paper to give it an A."

We won't get into these details of academic styles here, but I'll give you some online resources to help you wade into the formatting for different academic styles — just in case you want to produce papers that are so good-looking that your professors give A's without even reading them.

MLA (Modern Language Association)

This style is popular in writing classes because that's what your writing professors learned while they were deeply in love with literature and no idea they would have to teach writing some day. Here are three good, general introductions to the formatting of MLA-style papers:

  1. Modern Language Association
    Formatting a Research Paper
    Sample Papers
    The first link is to a nice, quick overview of the main formatting requirements. It comes with a few good illustrations, too. The second link takes you to a set of sample papers that use MLA formatting. These samples will be most helpful in showing you how the formal documentation works, but they help you see formatting in actions, too.
  2. Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL)
    MLA General Format
    The Purdue OWL has everything you need to know about anything to do with writing. It's not always easy to find what you need here, but it's here. Just keep looking. This link takes you to an entry point for their much extensive collection of MLA information.
  3. Scribbr
    MLA format for papers and essays
    This is another good introduction to MLA formatting from a commercial proofreading site.

It's one thing to know what your paper is supposed to look like. It's another thing to figure out how to make that happen with your writing software. Here are YouTube tutorials that will help you bend three major writing apps to your MLA will:

APA (American Psychological Association)

This is another popular academic style that's used within social science and health disciplines. In those disciplines, you're likely to run into this even in lower division classes that require any kind of researched writing. Here are three more good, general introductions to this style:

  1. American Psychological Association
    Paper Format
    This is a great site with lots of explanation and illustrations of how APA formatting works. It might be a little overwhelming because it provides information for how to format both shorter and book-length manuscripts. It also gets into the nitty gritty with table formatting and other stuff. If you get a nosebleed, try a simpler introduction like the ones below.
  2. Purdue OWL
    APA General Format
    Just like with MLA, the Purdue OWL has a ton of information about how to use the APA style. This link takes you to the formatting part of their APA resources.
  3. Scribbr
    APA format for academic papers and essays
    This commercial proofreading site provides a lot of good illustrations of APA Style to help formatting make sense. They give you the essentials first and then the nitty gritty, which is considerate of them.

These YouTube tutorials will help you to bend the three major writing apps to your APA will:


Chicago offers two different styles for documentation. They have the author-date system, which is similar to APA, a Notes-Bibliography (NB) system, which uses footnotes on the pages of the paper and a bibliography at the end. If you run into Chicago as an undergraduate, it's probably because you are studying history or economics. Here are two good starting points for this style:

  1. Purdue OWL
    Chicago General Format
    Once again, the Purdue OWL offers a good, general introduction to Chicago formatting, with lots of linked resources, including sample papers.
  2. Scribbr
    How to format a paper in Chicago style
    Once again, this is okay, too.

Chicago NB formatting can get pretty tricky because of the footnoting. It's also not as popular as other academic styles. For that reason, there aren't a lot of good video tutorials for it. But here is one for Microsoft Word:

And here are three for Google Docs. Unless you're a proud student at Amarillo College, you can ignore the bit about how to find your Google Docs in the first video:

Everything Else

MLA, APA, and Chicago are three popular styles in lower division classes. But this is just the start. For a nice long list of other options and online resources, head over to the Purdue OWL for their listing of academic style guides and the disciplines that use them:

Purdue OWL
Complete Discipline Listing

Some of these links are stale, but most of them are still good. It's hard to keep links up to date.

4. Use Visual Elements within Your Paper

A picture is never worth a thousand words in college writing — otherwise you could just turn in two pictures, I suppose, in place of a five-page paper — but there are still a lot of times when you can use the visual mode to present certain types of information more effectively than relying on words. Even when it comes to your words, you can use the formatting of those words to help readers see how your ideas fit together within the paper.

In this final section, we'll take a quick look at some of your options with the visual mode, and I'll include some links to extended instructions from other sites.

Headings, Paragraphs, and Subparagraphs

Before we get to the more obviously visual elements of your paper, let's take a minute to remember that even the appearance of your text is visual and gives important information to your readers. Your headings, paragraphs, block quotations and lists tell your readers how the information and ideas within the paper work together to explain and defend your main idea.

The look of the text can do that if you use it thoughtfully, at least. If you just kind of throw stuff out there — guessing about when to start a new paragraph, for example, or adding a bulleted list when you're too lazy to weave that information into a coherent paragraph — the look of your text can make your paper harder to understand. You don't want that, so here are some tips on how to make the best use of these textual elements.


Headings show readers how groups of paragraphs within your paper present supporting ideas or sets of information that help to explain your main idea:

The title is the top heading, and in a short paper, it's probably your only heading. It needs to tell your readers the focus of your paper, not just the topic. So if you're writing about why Hamlet waits so long to do anything about the murder of his father, don't title your paper "Hamlet." Title it "Why Hamlet Waits So Long to Do Anything about the Murder of His Father."

Within longer papers, use headings to show readers the major sections of your paper. In scientific papers, these major headings are often assigned by the purpose of that section — Abstract, Methods, Results, Discussion, and so on. In other college papers, you should also use headings to show the purpose of those section as they provide reasons or evidence or as they respond to the ideas of other.

If you're going to use headings, make sure you use them correctly. Only use headings to identify major sections of the paper, not for every supporting idea. If some headings introduce sections and others introduce smaller bits, the whole set of headings becomes confusing. Readers don't see what you want them to see. If you have a particularly large section in a particularly long paper, you can break that down into supporting sub-sections and given each a sub-heading. Style guides will help you with the formatting of those headings so readers can see what are the major headings and what are the subheadings that support those major sections. However, if you find that you're using sub-headings for single paragraphs, stop. You don't need them. A single paragraph can take care of itself.

Paragraphs and Subparagraphs

When you indent the first line of a paragraph, that bit of white space tells your readers that this is the start of a new supporting idea or block of information. Use it wisely. In popular writing like newspapers or webpages, paragraphs are there to break long blocks of text into easily digested bites of information. In formal writing like the college paper, paragraphs do breaks up long blocks of text into more digestible bites, but they must also be unified around a single main idea — just like your essay is unified around a single main idea. So do that. Think of that indentation as you saying, "Next." And then you share the next idea.

Within paragraphs, you can also use the look of the text to point out even smaller ideas or bits of information that help you explain that paragraph's ideas. Here are three options:

Now let's move on from text to the more obvious uses of the visual mode to present information — images, charts, and tables.


This includes photographs, art, and anything else that is primarily visual, with little or no text involved.

Pictures are useful when they are pictures of your topic. These might be journalistic photographs of actual events, such as people in hazmat suits washing the inside of subway cars to combat the coronavirus that you're writing about or a photo of the Van Gogh painting if that's what you're writing about. You might use a map if you're writing about a complex location that readers might have difficulty imagining.

Wheat Field with Cypresses by Vincent Van Gogh
Wheat Fields and Cypresses, by Vincent Van Gogh

The one thing to not do is use a picture that is merely decorative. Professional writing of any sort has a job to do for its readers — present your thinking as clearly as possible. Pretty pictures that are only there to be pretty get in the way of your thinking, so out they go.

A cute kitten stretches out on its back, eyes closed and adorable

See what I mean? For a second there, you forgot entirely about multimodal communication, didn't you? And you still want to give your eyes back to that kitty instead of reading these valuable words of mine. The kitty picture sort of ruins this entire section by distracting you from the purpose of this section. Don't make the same mistake with your college essay.

Here are some good places to learn more about finding, using, and correctly citing images in your paper:


A chart is any kind of visual representation of data. In fact, the better name for "charts" these days is "data visualization." It's a big category of options for you. It includes pie charts, bar graphs, scatterplot, and flow-charts — and about a hundred more options.

Charts are great whenever they can present information more efficiently than words can. You might include a flow chart to show all the small decisions that go into a big decision or how the parts of a complex system are connected to each other. You might use a bar graph to show a comparison of how the price of spinach has actually gone down over the last four decades. Who would have thought?

A generic flowchart
It's amazing how all these text fields work together, right?

The key to success is that you choose a chart that effectively illustrates whatever quality you want to highlight about your data, including these options:

This is a huge topic, the sort of thing you could make a career out of, but it's also an easy topic to start exploring. And any kind of spreadsheet software will help you by offering automated tools to help you turn raw data into attractive charts.

Here are some good starting points to teach yourself the basics of data visualization:

If you'd like to get your hands dirty with charts, these tutorials will help you get started with common spreadsheet software:

LearnFree.org also offers a very good webpage version of the above tutorial: Excel Charts.

The above video is longish (22 minutes), so you might prefer this web tutorial: How to Make Professional Charts in Google Sheets.

This Apple Numbers video above is a little dated. For something more up-to-date, here's a webpage tutorial from Apple: Column, bar, line, area, pie, and donut charts in Numbers on Mac. From here, you can easily navigate to other related charting tutorials.


Tables gather and organize raw information. They are much more prevalent in scientific writing because the job of scientific writing is to gather and publish raw information about a study or experiment. Scientists want to see the information you've gathered before they look at your interpretation of that information, and tables are an efficient way to present that information. The visual elements are limited to columns, headings, and simple lines to keep things separate.

I've already introduced two very good introductions to tables above. I'll give you those links again for your convenience:

Here are a couple of other resources that might be useful for you, especially if you're leaning toward the sciences for your major:

Even though tables often look like spreadsheets, they are almost always created within word-process software. You can get fancy-pants about it and link spreadsheets to word-process software, but most people don't bother with that headache. Here are some quick tutorials to get you started making attractive tables in the big three word-processing apps:

LearnFree.org also offers this web-based version of the above tutorial: Google Docs: Insert Tables. This isn't a great example for college writing, but the tutorial does a good job of introducing the table features in Google Docs.

Here are links to the other three parts of this tutorial: Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. Word is so much more complicated than it needs to be. Also, here's a web tutorial from Webucator, if you prefer: Working with Tables.

This Apple Pages tutorial is a few years old, so it might be slightly wrong for your version of the app, but the charming accent more than makes up for that.