How to distill your long-form text into a killer infographic

Follow these steps to boil down that popular white paper or article series into a compelling and easy-to-digest visual.

It was like using a big funnel, or maybe a pasta maker that turned a huge amount of dough into fun shapes.

A while back, I wrote an e-book for Meltwater called “In-Sourcing Your Content,” with advice on how to empower your co-workers to write great articles.

The good news: People liked it so much that I was asked to transform the book into an infographic.

The bad news: How do you do that? My book was something like 14 trillion words. How do you get that down to something fun and visually digestible?

Here’s what I learned along the way. Let’s assume you’ve written an informative, useful piece of content. Where do you go from there?

1. Decide why you need an infographic.

You’ve seen all sorts of infographics. There are silly ones, promotional ones, educational ones or, in rare cases, one you’d hang up as a poster for its beauty or because it contains information you’d consult regularly.

I wanted mine to be educational. Some people will have no idea about in-sourcing before seeing the infographic, so it’s important to introduce the idea. Mostly it gave tips in a digestible format, so that if someone wanted to start in-sourcing content, he or she would have the most pertinent tips right there in one place, rather than having to comb through a whole e-book to find everything.

2. Reverse-engineer an outline.

Before you start writing a piece, you might outline the main points to cover and the sub-points to support them.

Now, let’s reverse that process. Take the text of your long-form piece, and start breaking it up into sections, subsections, supporting content and so on.

If it helps, give them titles, labels and summaries: This is the central idea, this is a supporting anecdote, this is advice, et cetera. We can visualize this. Divide a section of content into the main idea and supporting points, with titles/labels for each.

Your goal is to have the whole piece broken up into sections, each with an easily identifiable purpose.

3. Edit, and then edit some more.

It’s not easy to let go of words you spent hours sweating over, but make sacrifices in the name of infographic goodness. Here are tips for hacking away bulky content, so you’re left with the best:

3a. Lose stuff that runs counter to your goal in No. 1.

You’ve already decided the infographic’s purpose; some things you wrote aren’t helping with that. Kill them. Kill them with fire.

In my original e-book, I spent a lot of time going into why you’d want to in-source content. That wasn’t my goal for this infographic; giving advice is, so that section is an easy cut.

3b. Break remaining text into 2-line chunks.

OK, those off-topic cuts helped, but even with the pertinent bits, there’s still a ton of stuff remaining. No problem. Here’s a rule to narrow things down:

  • Break up individual paragraphs into main points-no more than two or three chunks per paragraph.
  • Next, pare each chunk to a maximum of two lines. No exceptions. Cut detail, combine ideas, do what it takes. Be a stickler.

Pretty soon you’ll be down to a barebones outline with digestible chunks of information.

4. Start thinking visually.

OK, you’ve edited the text. That’s great, but a page full of short sentences does not an infographic make. Next, rework the content into visual data.

Look for the following:

  • How-to advice and processes: Divide these into numbered steps, with headings and instructions for each.
  • Series and lists: If you’re listing examples, turn them into bullet points.
  • Comparisons: Comparing two or more things? Do it with a chart or table.
  • Long descriptions: Are you using detailed text to describe something? Could an image be used instead?
  • Main points: Highlight them in big, bold text.
  • Quotes and statistics: Give them room to breathe. Use block quotes, graphs and flashy numbers.
  • Fun facts and asides: Create a sidebar where they have room to shine.

There are design elements you can add to jazz it up:

  • Play with fonts. What phrases, titles or words do you want to have stand out? What text should be big and bold?
  • Consider images to support text. Add notes to the infographic outline with imagery ideas. Drop in sample images or sketches that convey the story.

As you make progress, print out what you’ve done so far, take a few steps back, and look at the document as a whole. It won’t be anything close to a final infographic, of course, but you can start to see bigger trends: “Hmm, we’re getting a little text-heavy here. What can we add or change to break that up some?”

4a. Brush up on your graphic design knowhow.

Even if you’re not a designer, brushing up on the basics of graphic design will help you take part in the design process. Chip Kidd, an amazing book designer (he did the cover for “Jurassic Park,” among other things) wrote two books—”The Cheese Monkeys” and ” Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design—that completely changed the way I think about design.

5. Team up with a designer.

OK, you’ve put together a good draft, but no one works in a vacuum. It’s time to bring in an expert. The infographic designer will have valuable ideas-including additional charts, clearer images and different ways to visualize information. This opportunity to collaborate with a designer on an infographic iteration will help the magic to bubble to the surface.

Nate Walsh is an advertising, marketing and regular old sentence writer. His focuses include tech, health care and planning elaborate theme parties, including the occasional writeathon. A version of this article originally appeared on the Meltwater blog.

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