Using Maps Effectively in Academic and Scientific Documents
Academic and scientific authors are reminded again and again that visual aids are excellent communication tools when sharing complex material with readers. Figures of all kinds can enable reader comprehension in efficient and attractive formats, and maps are no exception. A map can lay out a real or theoretical landscape and thereby clarify not only a research context, but also the research itself. It can focus on a tiny square of land excavated for archaeological purposes, a large geographical area under investigation or an imagined chunk of the universe, so the potential range and application for maps are virtually limitless. Publishers, however, and other means of dissemination do have limits, even in this digital age, so there are a number of concerns to keep in mind when designing maps.
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• Check any guidelines or instructions or tools you will be using for formatting your document and determine how they will enable and limit the maps you can effectively present. Size requirements or limitations will be a major concern, as will the availability of colour. Each map must be designed to communicate information clearly and quickly to readers or users while also meeting all necessary requirements set by the publisher or context.
• Give each map in a document its own heading or caption and provide numbers for your maps that reflect the order in which they are discussed. Be sure to mention each map by name and number when you discuss it so that readers are led to the right map at the right moment.
• If possible, embed maps at appropriate points in your text. This means that readers will not have to search for the map you are discussing, and it also introduces attractive breaks in a long text. It is important, however, not to break up the text too much, and do be aware that many publishers will want maps submitted separately from the text and will determine their own layout for your text and maps.
• Labelling is very important when it comes to maps, so ensure that all labels are clear and will remain so when they are in front of the reader. Font can be varied to distinguish different elements, so countries might be labelled with full capitals, whereas other elements sport initial capitalisation only, with regions or provinces in plain roman font, cities in boldface and rivers in italics. If the text sizes of labels vary, be sure the variation is not extreme and that legibility is consistently maintained for readers. Abbreviations and symbols can be used, but any that are potentially unfamiliar to the intended audience should be defined.
• It is usually best for readers and for the appearance of a text if design elements are applied across all maps in a document as much as this is possible. If that system of labelling outlined in the last bullet point were used in the first map in a scholarly book, for instance, it would ideally be applied to all geographical maps included in the book.
• The scale of a map should always be indicated unless scale is irrelevant, which is rare. A scale often includes both metric and imperial measures and is usually placed within the map rather than in its heading or caption so that when the size of the map is altered, as it almost inevitably is during the publication or viewing process, the scale and the map maintain their relative sizes.
• Be creative with maps so that they are interesting and informative for your readers, and be sure to check your maps meticulously when you are proofreading your document. They are only as valuable as they are accurate, and all information shared between map and text must match with precision to avoid confusing your audience.
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