How to Put Illustrations in an Essay

by Colleen Reinhart

A picture is worth a thousand words, and sometimes an illustration is exactly what you need in your paper to drive an argument home and communicate your point succinctly. Avoid using images to pad your essay; make sure the illustration you've chosen serves a rhetorical purpose. Placing pictures according to style conventions ensures that their format is consistent with the rest of your paper, conveying a level of expertise that makes your argument more convincing overall.

MLA Style

Embed the illustration close to the essay text referring to it. You can place the picture wherever makes the most sense in your essay. Keep images inside your 1-inch margins throughout your MLA-style document.

Caption each image with a number, a short title and the word "from." Reference information describing the illustration's source will follow. At this point, your caption should look like "Fig. 1. Anne sips her tea in the garden from," minus the quotation marks.

Complete the caption with the reference information to credit the source of the illustration. Document the source information the same way you would if you were completing a works-cited entry for the publication. For example, an illustration from a book would be cited with the author first, followed by a comma. The title of the book would be italicized. Publishing city, institution and year would come next, formatted in brackets and followed by the page number for the illustration: (New York: Puffin, 2002) 22.

Refer to the caption within the body of your essay using the format "fig. 1." Do not capitalize the "fig." in your in-text references.

APA Style

Size the illustration to fit APA style specifications. If the figure spans one column, it must be 2 inches to 3.25 inches wide. Figures taking up two columns should be 4.25 inches to 6.875 inches wide. The height of your illustration must fit within the top and bottom margins of the page.

Caption your figure. APA style requires that you use a sans-serif font (Arial, for example), 8 points to12 points in size. Use the full, capitalized word "Figure" and a number to identify the illustration. Next, include a short title and an explanation of the figure's relevance. For example: Figure 1. Action Potentials. This figure shows how an action potential fires within a single muscle cell.

Complete the caption with a new sentence, beginning with the words "Taken from" or "Adapted from" and ending with an APA-style citation for the source material. For example, if your picture came from a book, you would begin with the author, followed by a period. Next would come the year of publication in brackets, followed by a period. Include the title of the publication next, italicized and followed by the page number in brackets: (pp. 45). Finally, add the publisher location and company in the following format: New York: Penguin.

Refer to the figure within the body of your paper. Capitalize its reference when you write about it. For example: "In Figure 2, you can see that..."


  • You don't need to create a separate reference sheet for your figures if you include all the source information in your captions, as suggested here.

About the Author

A professional writer since 2006, Colleen Reinhart has held positions in technical writing and marketing. She also writes lifestyle, health and business articles. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and Business degree from the University of Waterloo, and a Master's degree in speech-language pathology from the University of Toronto.

Photo Credits

  • Jupiterimages/ Images