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How to Make a Visual Essay

Virginia has been a university English instructor for over 20 years. She specializes in helping people write essays faster and easier.

A visual essay on homelessness can be particularly moving if done well.

A visual essay on homelessness can be particularly moving if done well.

What Is a Visual Essay?

A visual essay uses images along with words in order to:

  • Tell a personal story
  • Argue a claim
  • Explain a literary text
  • Illustrate a social problem

This Article Includes

  1. Types of visual essays
  2. Step-by-step instructions
  3. Student samples
  4. Links for free use images
  5. Help in finding quotes, graphs, and clip art
  6. Instructions for how to use Windows Movie Maker or iMovie

Why Write a Visual Essay?

There are a lot of good reasons for writing a visual essay. Here are some that come to mind.

More Interesting

Sometimes this kind of essay is an assignment for a class, but it might also be an option your instructor gives you. If you have the choice, you might find making a visual presentation more interesting and more powerful than just writing a regular essay.

Emotional Impact

Why? By using music, video, quotes, and powerful images, you can have a more powerful emotional effect on an audience than any written essay.

Bigger Audience

Better yet, these sorts of essays can be shared online to make your argument to a larger audience. For example, not too many people will read your essay on homelessness, but many people might want to see your essay on the lives of homeless people in your town and the people who help the homeless in a soup kitchen (see "Depression Slideshow" or "My Photo Memory: Helping Others" Video). Better yet, visual essays are easily shared through social media outlets and posted on YouTube.

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

This old saying is true. A great example is the "Texting and Driving" video below. The audience will understand the author's strong stand against texting when they see this essay that includes pictures of the author's high school friends who died because someone was texting while driving. While many students are told to avoid using "pathos" as an argument strategy, I tell my students that if you want to persuade someone, you need to tell stories that paint a picture and then follow up with facts that back up the story and demonstrate how important it is to solve it.

Example: Texting and Driving

Choosing a Topic

Thinking about moving personal experiences can help you choose a topic. The student who created "Texting and Driving" experienced the grief of losing five friends because of texting. He used his own emotions to help him craft a moving visual argument and included the story of his friends as part of his essay. For help in finding a topic, see my articles:

Reflective Essay Topic Ideas

Argument Essay Topics

What to Include?

Like an argument paper, visual essays can use written words and quotes, but they also can include:

  • Photos
  • Professional video
  • Personally filmed video
  • Artwork
  • Graphic Images
  • Tables, charts, and graphs
  • Spoken words
  • Music
  • Sounds
  • Text
  • Cartoons

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Step One: You need to brainstorm, plan, and research for your essay. Follow my steps below to plan your essay. I also give you links on where to find images to put in your essay and quotes to use.
  • Step Two: Gather your images and video. You can make your own videos and pictures, or use those available from the sites I give below. I also give you a link for software that lets you download YouTube videos that you can splice into your own essays.
  • Step Three: Put your essay together using Apple iMovie, Windows Movie Maker, or other video software. You can include music, your own voice, captions, and quotes.
  • Step Four: Publish your essay by uploading it to YouTube or showing it to your classmates and instructor.

Starting Your Visual Essay

Visual essays are a different format from written ones, but they require many of the same processes to make. Just like when you write, you will need to decide what you want to explain or argue.

Choose a topic and then decide what kind of essay you are writing. Here is a list of types:

  1. Explaining: when you want to describe and paint a picture of something but not argue a point.
  2. Analysis and Evaluation: when you want to take something apart and analyze the different parts. Often used for literature, songs, or movies. Part of your analysis will be evaluating whether this is effective for the audience.
  3. Argument: when you want to prove a point or move your audience to think or do something. There are several types of argument claims. Typically, argument essays make a claim which answers one of the following questions:
    • Fact: Is it true or not? Does it exist? Did it happen? (example: Is climate change Real? Does domestic violence happen in my community?)
    • Definition: How should we define it? What is it? (example: What is love? or What was the great depression like?)
    • Cause: What is the cause? What are the effects? How are these related? (example: What causes homelessness? What are the effects of teens texting and driving?)
    • Value: How important is this? How should we value it? (example: How important is Family for college students? or What is the value of a college education?)
    • Policy: What should we do about it? How can we solve the problem? (example: How can we help friends with eating disorders? How can we solve the problem of child labor?)

You may need to do some research to find the answer to your argument question. You can Google to find out some information on your topic, or look at YouTube videos. Once you find your claim answer, try to write it in a single sentence. That sentence is the thesis for your essay.

Finding Images for Visual Essays

When you are looking for images on the Internet, you need to understand that there is a difference between just viewing those images and using them yourself. Luckily, there are many great sites with images that are offered free for anyone to use. Here are some of the best free use sites:

  1. Wikimedia Commons: images are available for free use and don't have copyright. Moreover, they have a lot of interesting historical images and famous pictures and art which can make your visual essay unique. The link lands you on the "Topic" page, but you can also use the search engine to find photos.
  2. Flickr: includes many categories of photos, including "The Commons" which are photos uploaded from collections, as well as personal photos uploaded by people around the world.
  3. Open Clip Art: a gallery of graphics clip art that is free to use. You can search for many objects here that can help you convey your story. It also includes humorous images and cartoons.
  4. Pixabay: professional photography images that are often quite stunning. These free-use images can be explored by topic, by the photographer, or by searching for a term. This site also includes clip art.
  5. Slideshare: contains many PowerPoint presentations on lots of different topics. You can get ideas for your essay as well as look for graphics and quotes you could use. This site gets many uploads from companies, professors, and businesses, so it is a great resource for charts and graphs.
  6. Pikwizard: offers a variety of high-quality photos that you can use for personal and commercial use. It also includes a Design Wizard feature which allows you to add text, shapes, video, and other elements. Some features and add-ons are free and others require a small fee.

Ed Wordle Graphic Images


Finding Quotes

Need a great quote to make a point in your essay? Or maybe you remember a quote but don't know who said it. Use one of these sites to help you out:

  • Brainy Quote: Get quotes on many topics like love, friendship, wisdom, or quotes by the author. A good quote can be an excellent way to end your essay.
  • Good Reads Quotes: Another source for quotes from famous people. You type in the topic and many different quotes appear along with a picture of the person who said it.
  • WordItOut: Create a beautiful design of words that are important for your topic. This can be a great graphic for an introduction or conclusion. All images you make are your own to use in any way you want. If you want to do it through an app rather than online, you can download it for a dollar on Amazon: WordItOut

Humor in Visual Essays

As "The Scary Math" demonstrates, you don't have to be serious. Humor, satire, and irony can be great ways to convince your audience about your ideas. In the case of this essay, the humor comes from the way the author takes a familiar childhood math lesson and extends it to real life.

Scary Math


Before you gather images, video, music, and other research, you will need to think about what you want to say and how you want to present it. Start by writing down your main point or your claim question and answer. Then answer the following to help you develop your ideas and think about what sort of materials you need to gather for your project.

  1. What are the reasons for believing your thesis?
  2. What are some examples to back up those reasons?
  3. What are the other views on this topic?
  4. What objections would people have to your ideas?
  5. What are your most convincing arguments to refute those objections?
  6. What images would you like to find to illustrate your thesis?
  7. What quotations or phrases could you use that would be memorable?
  8. Are there any familiar sayings that you can reuse or repurpose to get your meaning across?
  9. What music (if any) could help you convey your message?
  10. Do you want to use long sequences of pictures with music, sounds, or silence?
  11. Do you want to write a script that you speak over the visual images?
  12. Will you include a video? If so, will you take it yourself or use clips of other videos?

Creating a Plan

Looking at your answers to your pre-writing questions, you can start to plan how you will put together your piece. Just like a written essay, you will need an introduction, body, and conclusion. You may want to think of this as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Before you start to gather images, you might want to make a rough outline of how you want your essay to come together.

  • Title: Often your claim question can be your title, or you may want a single word or short phrase title that tells your subject and use your question in the opening. The font, animation, and color will set the tone of your piece, so spend some time trying out different styles to see what you like best.
  • Introduction: How will you interest your viewer? Your first few images need to tell the viewer the subject and the question and grab their attention.
  • Body: How will you present your thesis? Will you tell it in a voice-over? Write it on a picture or a screen by itself? Would it be more effective to tell your main reasons first and then put your main idea at the end in the conclusion?
  • What types of images could help you to prove your main reasons for your claim? Remember that it is usually important to order your ideas from least to most important, so put your best reasons last. You might want to make a list of the types of images you want. Be sure to indicate any images you already have.
  • Conclusion: What do you want your audience to think, do, or believe after they have watched your essay? How will you draw the audience with you to believe your claim at the end? Will you use a specific image? A repeated idea? A quote? A challenge? A question?

Using Images for Persuasion

In the "Religion Visual Essay" below, the images about children are the argument. The arrangement of the pictures, along with the repetition of so many instances of children being exploited is a powerful argument that implies the thesis that we need to do something to stop it.

Sometimes pictures without text can be more powerful. Consider having some part of your essay being images alone.

Literature Responsive Essay

Some essay assignments ask you to respond or explain some work of literature, or a quote or scene. The student making the video below was responding to an assignment to take a scene from Hamlet and explain the importance of that scene in the play. She chose Act 5, Scene 1, the suicide of Ophelia, and her presentation shows how Ophelia's death leads to much of the actions and violence in the rest of the play.

Hamlet Response

Questions & Answers

Question: How do I create a visual essay on a painting?

Answer: You follow all of the same techniques that you would use for any other evaluation essay except that you will be discussing the visual aspects of color, line, form, content, subject matter, history, and artist. Start with a description of the painting or the history of the artist or that particular work. If the work is controversial or has an interesting viewing history, that can also be a good introduction idea for your essay. Then you will describe it based on the different aspects of visual art that you know.

Question: How do I create a visual essay on a sticker?

Answer: You could use the same criteria that you would for other art pieces: meaning, color, shape, references, lines, perspective, and text, etc. The main question you would have is how well does the sticker convey the meaning that seems intended?

© 2013 Virginia Kearney


Jeff Bullard on April 06, 2020:

Thank you for an informative article. Appreciate the extensive lists of resources for visual and audio content.

val14954 on June 05, 2018:

thanks a lot for making this article its very helpful

Anonymous on January 31, 2018:

Very useful link

Japhet on October 25, 2016:

This is great. Thank you for sharing this.

Dianna Mendez on November 16, 2013:

Wow, this is a really interesting post and opens a whole new world to writing an essay for the younger generation. It would keep the interest high and promote excellent writing skills. The videos are so well done. Voting up and sharing!

Eiddwen from Wales on November 12, 2013:

Interesting and so very useful.

Voted up and thanks for sharing.


Levy Tate from California, USA on November 11, 2013:

Awesome tips -- and massive thanks for providing great examples! Voted up ;-)

fbesares2 on November 11, 2013:

Wow, well organized hub. Thank you for sharing this

Prithima Sharma from Delhi, India on November 11, 2013:

great hub