Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

Sketchnoting in Science Writing… a possibility?

Reading is important, but add an image and you’ll notice the difference. Converting verbal information into visual may become one of the most powerful communications tools in scientific writing. It depends on the ability to develop a sketchnoting skill.

Sketchnoting science

In one heat transfer exam, instead of asking for calculating a value, or using mathematical manipulation of heat transfer equations to justify a thermal behavior, I asked students to make a drawing. A simple drawing was enough to show they knew the physics. Surprisingly, most of them didn’t do it.

Sketches were recently recovered as an essential tool to teach biology. But I think we could extend that to Engineering, and even scientific research. I have a colleague who makes excellent sketches of physical phenomena in combustion flames. With a simple sketch, he’s able to give a quick and easy way to memorize view of the several phenomena involved.

Sketchnoting Drop Impact

Sketches are not meant to make a rigorous representation of reality. For that, we use High-Speed Imaging. However, sketches excel in giving us an easy way to understand the physical interpretation of reality. And if a good image is worth a thousand words, I wondered how far could we use sketches in scientific papers.

In science, we pay a lot of attention to details. Observation plays an essential role in discerning physical phenomena in our experiments. With the rising importance of infographics in science and the power of visual communication in science, maybe sketches could be a useful process to improve our interpretation of physical phenomena, but also our ability to communicate them.

There are 3 ways in which I think sketchnoting may produce a positive impact in scientific writing.


Draw to remember more

In his TED talk, Graham Shaw doesn’t simply tell the audience how drawing help remembering, he shows. Everyone in his TED talk experience how drawing improves your memory and understanding.

I’m thinking we read a lot of articles on our topic, and highlight the parts that are related to our work. Sketchnoting could be used instead of highlights. Not only we remember better what we read but also make some interpretation. Those sketches could inspire our own and this is powerful to develop future infographics.


Sketchnoting to improve graphical abstracts

Elsevier, one of the largest publishers of scientific articles, introduced Graphical Abstracts to provide readers with a “single, concise, pictorial and visual summary of the main findings of the article.”

The purpose of sketchnoting is converting verbal to visual information. Therefore, if we develop the skills of sketchnoting, we could produce more and better graphical abstracts.


Sketchnoting is not a talent, but a skill

You may think you’re not an artist, thus, sketchnoting is not for you. I understand that and it resonates. And it should be good news to you knowing sketchnoting is not a talent, but a skill you can develop through the most effective way… practice.

Mike Rhode who coined the word “sketchnoting” clarifies it’s about “ideas, not art.” This means developing this skill depends more on the value you find in it than any talent you have or not to sketch.

Question: do you have any experience in sketchnoting and its impact on your scientific writing? Share your thoughts and experience in the comments below.

Interesting Links:

  • Make a Sketchnote of Science (link)
  • Rediscovering the Forgotten Benefits of Drawing (link)

About Miguel Panao

I am a Professor at the University of Coimbra in Mechanical Engineering. I am also author of books in the fields of environmental ethics and Science and Religion. From the several research projects, this site is personal and dedicated to the search for the best approaches, tools, techniques to improve scientific productivity.

Leave a Reply