illustration of man laying water tiles over a desert

Editing Visual Components

Visuals aren’t just those pretty things that push the words aside. Graphs, charts, diagrams, photos, and other illustrations help readers make sense of complex ideas. They help the reader orient to the text, and address visual and spacial learners that might be left behind by words alone.

Editors at various stages of manuscript development and quality assurance must comment on the visual elements of the product. Below you will find checklists of things that should be checked and flagged at each stage, and resources for learning more about effective visual communication.

illustration of man laying water tiles over a desert

These resources are presented in answer to Professional Editorial Standards requirement C5: that editors “Recognize when graphic elements must be edited to clearly and effectively convey the intended meaning,” with recommendations made by my colleagues in both editorial and design. Specific hat tips appear at the bottom.


Get practice giving the kinds of editorial feedback required for visuals at each stage of the manuscript/ product development. Come hear Cheryl and Adrienne in person:

June 12 at the Editing Goes Global conference in Toronto



snapshot peek of the printable checklist for editing visuals at 3 stages in the editing process

Print out the checklists for your own use.



Checklist for Substance

The developmental editor, right near the beginning of the project (or the acquisitions editor or managing editor, substantive editor or any number of other titles) acts as a sort of artistic director, deciding which visuals to commission, and directing their content. They consider whether:

  • illustrates what text says it will
  • content matches what is indicated by running text and doesn’t include (too many) extras
  • contains enough detail (per narrative and goal)
  • point of view appropriate to the content (e.g., cross section vs broad view)
  • comparisons, contrasts, and context are appropriate to the data/ message
  • style appropriate to audience and message (e.g., cartoon, set-up photo, or line plot graph)
  • labels self-explanatory
  • alignment and proximity of elements (and text) are relative to their importance and relationship to each other (e.g., heading levels)
  • graphs start at zero and scale is not distorted
  • data is represented accurately, avoiding pitfalls of distorted data representation
  • requested resolution is adequate and appropriate to the medium (e.g., 300 pdi for print, 72 for on-screen)

Checklist for Style

At the copyediting stage, the editor should be verifying that the content of the visuals matches the accompanying text. This is the most recognized editing skill set. Sometimes it is called line editing. They check:

  • font type and size correct/appropriate
  • capitalization style correct
  • word choice matches running text
  • colours and patterns high enough contrast (consider usability and accessibility: screen size and resolution, colour blindness and other visual impairments)
  • bright colours used for accents, not main content
  • design choices fit theme/ ideologies
  • design choices aid usability (consider audience and medium)
  • numbers/ values match sources
  • representations accurate and truthful
  • totals and calculations verified (e.g., percentages add up to 100)
  • single scale and measures used for related graphs (data)
  • exaggerations are appropriate
  • sets of visuals (of equal importance) are similarly sized
  • look is consistent across product set/ brand

Checklist for Quality (Proofreading)

At the page proofing stage, proofreaders should be checking that copyeditor’s changes were correctly implemented and that all elements adhere to the style specifications of the product. This stage is sometimes called quality assurance and may be done by someone on the design team. They verify:

  • spelling matches text
  • caption matches image
  • all elements of image present
  • no details lost in the fold
  • copy editor’s changes input correctly
  • alt text in place for accessibility and SEO
  • text legible (size and contrast)
  • resolution adequate and appropriate to the medium
  • colours and contrast accessible
  • credit/ source lines in place and accurate
  • placement leaves enough space around text and doesn’t force awkward layout
  • visual infelicities edited out (e.g., a stain on a shirt, unless that’s important)
  • placement of captions and visuals is consistent
  • captions are accurate — see additional captions checklist


Final Quality Check

Always review graphics in the final medium. That means printed on the press that will produce the final product, on a Kindle if that’s the destination device, or on a SMARTboard, etc. The quality and style checklists may be helpful.


Print out the checklists for your own use. You can even break them up and distribute them to relevant team members as long as my credit for creating them is included, and you don’t sell them. (CC BY-SA 2.0 license 2015)




// to Cheryl Stephens for posing the question in the first place, and for becoming my partner in crime: sleuthing out these resources and developing detailed guidance for (copy) editors together. Cheryl is an instructor at the Writing and Publishing Program at Simon Fraser University Continuing Ed (Editing Certificate). Particularly helpful colleagues who entertained my questions and directed my attention include Carla Douglas and Wendy Millard, two local colleagues. Carla is a fellow editor, proprietor at Beyond Paper books. Wendy is a designer, and serves on the board of the Registered Graphic Designers of Canada.
Image of the battle against desertification by Robbert van der Steeg used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

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