# How to reference a figure from text in a technical document

I'm preparing technical documentation for some software. For the installation, there are lots of screen grabs and they all have Figure x captions. What's the correct styling and means of referencing figures from text?

For example, if one step says:

Click OK to continue (see Figure 9).

Is this correct? Thanks.

• Are you following a particular style guide? If so, which one? – Monica Cellio Feb 6 '14 at 2:14
• Not really. Some guidance on this would be appreciated. – Alex Feb 6 '14 at 15:41

In the absence of a style guide saying otherwise, your approach is fine. (So is abbreviating to "Fig.", though I prefer to spend the extra three letters and use the full word. It's also consistent with "Table", which I haven't seen abbreviated as "Tab.".)

Whatever you do, be consistent -- refer to all of your figures as "Figure N" and use that same text in the figure captions.

If the figure isn't immediately adjacent to the text, use a cross-reference. I believe all modern documentation formats support this.

One final thought: if your style permits this, for step-by-step instructions consider dispensing with the figure references. Do the 15 screen shots involved in configuring such-and-such preferences for your product really need to be individually numbered and listed in the table of contents (or table of figures)? Consider instead the following style:

1. Select "File -> Preferences" to open the preferences panel:
[screen shot of preferences panel]

3. Click the "Configure SSL" button to (blah blah blah):

In this style, the screen shots become part of the narrative. This only works if each screen shot is only relevant once, in its immediate context; if you'll need to refer to them from elsewhere in the document, numbering will make that easier.

I would suggest abbreviating the word "Figure" to "Fig.". As could construe from scientific articles I've read(and I've read ~100 of them), it's more common. In all, you're perfectly correct: just a number would be fine:

See Fig. 8 for details. As depicted in the Fig. 14...


By the way, what text editor/publishing system are you using?

For example, TeX-like document styles handle those issues themselves and even much hated MS Word has a couple of suitable presets. So the author has to choose the style once and for all and stick to it. Consistency is conciseness and clarity, and beauty.

• Would suggest the same. If you do abbreviate to "Fig", make sure you use Fig in the description text of the Figure as well. – Pravesh Parekh Feb 7 '14 at 20:00
• Not necessarily, though I admit, I encountered both variations of the description style: full and abbreviated. – Undespairable Feb 7 '14 at 20:11
• Of course. I meant to suggest that one stick to a single version throughout - abbreviated or non-abbreviated. Shouldn't that be the style? – Pravesh Parekh Feb 7 '14 at 20:12
• That's why I asked about publishing system. For example, TeX-like document styles handle those issues themselves and even much hated MS Word has a couple of suitable presets. So the author has to choose the style once and for all and stick to it. Consistency is conciseness and clarity, and beauty. Better add that to the answer. – Undespairable Feb 7 '14 at 20:21
• Sorry, didn't see the answers and comments until now. I'm using MS Word 2013. One challenge with Word and Track Changes enabled: the figure numbers get jumbled. It all works again once you accept the changes and get a final document. – Alex Mar 27 '14 at 17:39

"See Figure 9" is fine when you're referring to a figure on the same page. If you're referring to a figure that's further away, you also need a page number ("See figure 9 on page 72").

Left to my own devices, I don't use figure numbering (or table numbering either). However, I have worked on some assignments where its use was mandated by the corporate style guide.

I always insert images right where I discuss them and make sure I use formatting that will keep the figure with the related text. In that case, there's no need to refer to the figure elsewhere. If I need to refer to the figure again, I'm not shy about re-inserting the figure at the point of the new reference in the text. If I do need to refer to a figure, I use a linked cross-reference to the topic heading (e.g., see the image shown in How to trim your tree).

In an environment where heading numbering is required, I'll use a linked cross-reference to the figure number.

Note: I'm moderately allergic to abbreviations. I prefer to spell out things rather than abbreviate them. For words that are lengthy, I add a shortened version to my AutoCorrect list in Word and the shortened version is thus automatically replaced with the proper word. I also suspect that abbreviations can cause issues in translation.