How to Make 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

Social Issue Topic

Homeless man.
Homeless man. | Source

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

Depression Visual Slideshow

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Girl Praying for School Lunch during Depression, 1936Boys at Work with Civilian Conservation Core, 1933Migrant Family in Pea Fields California, 1935Girl listening to radio during Great DepressionPoverty at Christmas.
Girl Praying for School Lunch during Depression, 1936
Girl Praying for School Lunch during Depression, 1936 | Source
Boys at Work with Civilian Conservation Core, 1933
Boys at Work with Civilian Conservation Core, 1933 | Source
Migrant Family in Pea Fields California, 1935
Migrant Family in Pea Fields California, 1935 | Source
Girl listening to radio during Great Depression
Girl listening to radio during Great Depression | Source
Poverty at Christmas.
Poverty at Christmas. | Source

Personal Memory Video Essay

Why Make a Visual Essay?

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 Personal Memory video).

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

This old saying is true. A great example is the "Texting and Driving" video. 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.

Example: Essay on Texting and Driving

Choosing a Topic

Thinking about moving personal experiences can help you choose a topic. The student creating the "Texting and Driving" video essay below experienced the grief of losing 5 friends in an accident caused by 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.

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

Steps to Follow

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 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.

How to Start

Visual essays are a different format from a written essay, but they require many of the same processes to make. Just like in a written essay, you will need to decide what you want to explain or argue. Here is what you need to do in order to plan your essay.

  1. Choose a Topic.
  2. Decide on your Claim Question: After you have decided on your topic idea. You will need to choose a thesis or main idea that you want to prove. Even if you are doing a personal essay or talking about a piece of literature, you need to have the main point that you want to make.

Typically, argument essays make a claim which answers one of the following questions:

  • Fact: Is it true or not? Does it really exist? Did it really happen? (example: Is climate change Real? Does domestic violence happen in my community?)
  • Definition: How should we define it? What is it really? (example: What is love? or What was the great depression really 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?)

3. Decide on your claim answer. You may need to do some research to find the answer. 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.

What is your Visual Essay about?

  • Personal story
  • History essay
  • Arguing a claim
  • Explaining or responding to literature
  • other--tell us in the comments below
See results without voting
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Finding Images

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

  1. Wikimedia Commons: All of the images on Wikimedia 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 really 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 graphic clip art which is free to use. You can search for many objects here that can help you convey your story. Also includes humorous images and cartoons.
  4. Pixabay: professional photography images which 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 own 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.

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 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.
  • Wordle: 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.

Visual Essays and Humor

As "America Needs Nerds" demonstrates, you don't have to be serious. Humor, satire and irony can be a great way to convince your audience about your ideas. In the case of this essay, the humor comes from the pictures and contrasts with the seriousness of the voiceover. The pictures help the audience accept the claim of the essay that "geeks" and "nerds" should be valued rather than shunned.

America Needs Nerds


Before you gather images, video, music and other research for your essay, you will need to think about what you want to say and how you want to present it. Start by writing down 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 claim?
  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 claim?
  5. What are your most convincing arguments to refute those objections?
  6. What images would you like to find to illustrate your claim?
  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 video? If so, will you take it yourself or use clips of other videos?

How to Make Photo Slideshow in Windows Movie Maker

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 and 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.

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 claim thesis? Will you tell it in a voice over? Write it on a picture or on a screen by itself? Would it be more effective to tell your main reasons first and then put your claim 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 to Create an Argument

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

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

Child Labor

Literature Response

Some essay assignments ask you to respond or explain some work of literature, or a quote or scene. The student making the visual paper 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 visual paper shows how Ophelia's death leads to much of the actions and violence in the rest of the play.

Hamlet Response

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Comments 6 comments

Japhet 2 days ago

This is great. Thank you for sharing this.

teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 2 years ago

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 profile image

Eiddwen 2 years ago from Wales

Interesting and so very useful.

Voted up and thanks for sharing.


redfive profile image

redfive 2 years ago from California, USA

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

fbesares2 2 years ago

Wow, well organized hub. Thank you for sharing this

Prithima Sharma profile image

Prithima Sharma 2 years ago from Delhi, India

great hub

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    VirginiaLynne1,251 Followers
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    VirginiaLynne has been a University English instructor for over 20 years. She specializes at helping people write essays faster and easier.

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