25 March 2010

Review: A Short Guide to Writing About Biology (Seventh Edition)

I was discussing this blog and our classes in scientific communication to a visiting textbook rep. And she said, “I happen to have a copy of our new edition of our book on biological writing in my bag.” I asked if it had any materials on posters, flipped through the index to find that it did, and said, “I shall blog about the poster chapter!” For that is what I do here.

This is the seventh edition of the book, and the section on poster presentations is one of the things that is called out as being changed from previous editions. The poster section has been combined with a chapter on oral presentations, I’m not sure if this is good or bad, since the task and problems each poses are very different. On the other hand, many of the skills required for both are similar (i.e., thinking about your story, type, graphs, colour choices, and so on).

There are 6 pages out of 288 devoted to poster presentations in this book. In fact, this is a page shorter than the previous edition (though the text is largely the same). As is often the case, the information is sound, but very basic. Make sure all your stuff fits in your allotted space; use few words and big print.

There is also one example layout. It is a little unusual because it shows sections running horizontally in rows. Columns on posters are much more typical, because most posters are wider than tall. Pechenik explicitly says the example isn’t a template, and it’s there to show general principles, but it’s so sparse that a lot of general principles are missing. My favourite points for fast improvement – alignment and grids – do not appear.

Pechenik advocates using flowcharts for Methods sections on posters rather than text. I have mixed feelings about this. Yes, it’s great when you can use pictures to tell the story. But I’ve seen too flowcharts that could have been very simple, like the one on the left, fall victim to wedding cake syndrome and end up looking like the one on the right.

I do love this quote from the book, though, which nicely sums up part of the poster presentation experience:

Poster sessions are like flea markets, complete with all the noise and crowds.

It’s a very good way to remind yourself that you are competing for attention. Plus, you can’t get desperate or mad if people go elsewhere. Not everyone is going to stop at every shop in the market.

There are many other A Short Guide to Writing About [Academic Discipline] books, all by different authors, from this publisher. I normally don’t come across those, being a biologist myself. If any of those have sections on posters, please email me so I can track down a copy and check out what it has to say!


Pechenik JA. 2009. A Short Guide to Writing About Biology (Seventh Edition). New York: Longman. Publisher’s website | Amazon

Picture of Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market from Mike the Mountain on FLickr, user under a Creative Commons license.

18 March 2010

Top down: Solutions for unused spaces

Just as there are decisions about whether you should align a column of text as ragged right or fully justified, you should also think about the vertical justification. (As usual, click any figure to enlarge it.)

The top of your poster is like your left margin of your page. Everything should align. Ideally, there should be a heading at the top of each column. Not always easy to do, because results often take up more space than anything else.

The bottom of your poster is like the right side of a page. You’ll often be left with white space at the bottom, particularly if you’re trying to get everything aligned at the top. It’s okay if the bottoms of the columns don’t align. The example below is probably okay as is.

There are limits, though. Wildly different column lengths are worth trying to fix.

It’s not a good idea to try to get the bottoms to align by messing with either the spacing between the lines or paragraph, which will create big gaps in the text.

If you want to get everything to align on the bottom to achieve grid nirvana, you have three good bets.

First, try adding or removing text. If that doesn’t work, try changing the size of certain clearly defined sections. The methods, funding acknowledgements, and references can literally be the fine print of the poster, and set slightly smaller than the main text.

Second, adjust the size of any existing figures. Crop your photos or change the proportions of your graphs.

Third, you can use a little bit of “filler.” Sometimes I’ve put in a related cartoon, picture of a field site, or lab, or something related to, but not essential, to the story. Although I’ve whinged about university logos on posters before, I have put logos down in empty space at the bottom of a column, as below. There, they don’t mess with the symmetry of titles, and they can actually improve the symmetry of the grid overall.

Just like horizontal alignment, getting the top and bottoms of columns to look attractive is mainly a matter of how much time you’re willing to spend tweaking.

Related posts

Love my justify

11 March 2010

Love my justify

There are two common ways to justify a large body of text: full justification and ragged right. (You could, in theory, center text or use ragged left – with everything aligning on the right margin – but those are best reserved for specialty uses and the avant garde.) Let’s look at the pros and cons of each.

Ragged right is how the text in this blog usually appears. The words on the left side of the text create a clean line next to the margin, but the words on the right side do not. The advantage of this is that there is an even spacing between each word, which can make the text a bit easier to read. My fellow academics will probably realize this is how most journals want the text of their manuscripts to be set.

Full justification is where the text lines up along both the left and right side. In multi-column layouts, like that often found on a poster, full-justification emphasizes the underlying grid structure, which, in turn, gives the appearance of an ordered and considered text. Most books and magazines usually use full justification. And, just for amusement, I’ve made this paragraph fully justified. If the software did it correctly, you probably wouldn’t have noticed the difference if I hadn’t mentioned it.

I find full justification on posters attractive, but it is notoriously tricky to do well. It requires subtle decisions about hyphenation to get the best effect. For example, author Robert J. Sawyer shows how full justification can be a horrible experience in the wrong hands. The mid-range word processors and layout tools academics often work with do it passably at best. And it should always be checked by a person.

Decisions about the underlying grid can help decide which way to go. Wider columns are much more tolerant of full justification. Narrow columns are often better served by ragged right, unless you’re willing to put in the time and tweak it by hand. Even ragged right can benefit from subtle reworking by hand, although this is probably the reserve of higher end publications.

Related links

Choosing type alignments for the web

Picture from here.

04 March 2010

Should your first presentation be a poster?

You’re a student who has been working very hard on your research project. To your surprise, your supervisor somehow manages to find a pot of money to send you off to your first conference. Joy! Excitement!

And your supervisor says, “Since this is your first conference, you should do a poster.”

There are a lot of reasons for people to do a poster at a first conference over doing an oral presentation. Posters are less formal, less high stakes, and almost never get bumped.

But there’s a risk.

Here’s one of my own posters that fell victim to it (click to enlarge).

Too much text. Way too much. How did that happen?

This was the first presentation of our project. We were still thinking through the story. And that’s the risk. If it’s the first time you're committing ideas and data to paper, you tend to think through it by writing it out. It’s no accident that the word for “essay” comes from French for “try” or “attempt” – you’re trying to clarify your thinking by writing it out.

The result is often a poster with lots and lots and lots of words. Like above.

That the poster was so verbose was useful when we wrote the journal article about this project, because we had thought so much of it out in making the poster. But while the article may have benefited, make no mistake: the poster was the worse for it.

Your poster should not be the first draft of a journal manuscript; the two are very different forms of communication. But that’s a very likely outcome if you haven’t worked through the story before. It’s not clear to you yet how much you can cut and still make your points.

The “Do as I say, not as I did” morale of the story:

If your poster is the first time you’re presenting a project, you must be especially ruthless in editing it. Run through the story to a friend. Get lots of feedback. Be as ruthless as if you are preparing a talk with a super-short time limit.

Related posts

Poster or talk?


Jimenez SA, Faulkes Z. 2009. Establishment of a research colony of Marmorkrebs, a parthenogenetic crayfish species. Integrative and Comparative Biology 49:e249. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/icb/icp003

Jimenez SA, Faulkes Z. 2010. Establishment and care of a laboratory colony of parthenogenetic marbled crayfish, Marmokrebs. Invertebrate Rearing 1:10-18. http://inverts.info/content/invertebrate-rearing-111-18

01 March 2010

First anniversary

Better Posters is now one year old, and it’s become one of my favourite projects. This blog doesn’t draw in a huge amount of traffic, but it has been going up slowly and steadily. I am also extremely grateful for those of you who have taken a moment to provide some feedback (some of which is showcased at the right). Thanks for your attention.