An author’s guide to writing good alt text

If you’re an author who is submitting their work to a Taylor & Francis journal and wants to learn more about creating accessible content in publishing (including how to write good alt text) this guide has been created for you.

This page will provide information and guidance on, how to write good alt text, and how to submit alt text with your article.

What is alt text?

Before we get started on how to write good alt text, it is important that you know what alt text is.

Alt text (alternative text) is a short text description that can be digitally attached to images, photos, or figures to convey the contents of the object. Systems such as pronouncing screen readers use alt text to make the object accessible to people who cannot read or see it, due to a visual impairment or print disability.

Why is alt text important?

Adding alt text to your research is important for many reasons and it is vital that you understand these reasons, as well as the harm of not including alt text.

Alt text provides the opportunity to make content accessible to those with digital access requirements. By providing alt text in your research, you promote inclusivity and equal access to gaining knowledge. Whilst also helping to raise awareness of accessibility amongst your research community.

If you don’t prioritize including alt text in your research, you’re decreasing the amount of people who can access your research. So if you add alt text, you are expanding your audience reach and making sure your community can access your work. In turn, this will increase your readership, and the chances of greater engagement and research impact.

How to write good alt text

When you begin thinking about writing alt text, there are some important things to remember.

  • The alt text you write needs to convey the content in word form, clearly and concisely, and in a way every user can understand.

  • Alt text should be as objective as possible.

  • Alt text is not the same as a caption (captions typically provide information that supplements the visual element).

Successful alt text

Let’s go through what successful alt text is. It is…

1. Precise

If alt text descriptions are too long it can unnecessarily burden people who use screen readers. As an approximate guideline, alt text should be under 100 words, but never less than 10. The average length of alt text is between 25 and 30 words long.

2. Purposeful

Alt text should reflect the purpose of the visual, in the context of the publications and journals focus. Remember, the alt text for the same image may vary dependent on the paper it is situated in, as the purpose of the research will be different. 

3. Unique

You want to make sure that your alt text doesn’t repeat anything that is already in the surrounding text. If you struggle to think of anything unique to write for the alt text of an image, you should question whether the image should be identified as a decorative image. And then think about if the image is necessary in your research.

4. Clear

Spell out all contractions, numbers, and non-Latin letters and present the information in a logical and consistent order.

5. Plain text

Do not use formatting, such as bullet points, in your alt text. People who use screen readers cannot interact with alt text or access the formatting in the alt text. So, if formatting is used, this makes the alt text confusing.

6. Consistent

You should make sure that your alt text is presented consistently in your research. Use the same style and level of language that is used in the main body of your research.

7. Inclusive

Successful alt text is inclusive. It should not contain additional information that a sighted person (or someone not using a screen reader) would miss.

8. Complete

Finally, make sure that your alt text is concluded with a full stop. Doing this allows screen reading software to pause, before it continues onto the next piece of text. 

    Example of alt text with different contexts

    You also need to consider that alt text can vary depending on the context of how the visual element is being used. Let’s look at an example.

    An image of London City may be used in a research paper in a UK tourism journal and in a Geographical journal. In the first case, the alt text may describe the tourism elements and the popular spots to visit. In the second case, the alt text may describe the geographical mapping of the city. 

    To help you decide what angle to take with your alt text, consider the questions below.

    • Why is the visual element in my paper?

    • What information does it present?

    • What is the purpose of the image?

    • If the image was removed from my paper, how would I describe it to convey the same information and/or purpose?

    Creating long descriptions

    Long descriptions serve a different purpose to alt text. They offer a more detailed description. Long descriptions are usually required if the image provides information that can’t be adequately described in the alt text, and which is not already captured in the accompanying body text.

    You should think of long descriptions as an objective, detailed text translation of an image. Successful long descriptions follow the general rules noted below.

    • They can be any length (whereas alt text must be described within 10-100 words).

    • Tables and lists may be used in long descriptions (but they cannot in alt text).

    Long descriptions are most often written as part of publications in STEM journals. Often STEM titles can contain visuals with a lot of information and complicated data. The long descriptions help detail these visuals in words.

    How to submit alt text with your article

    Whilst writing your article you should make sure that all your figures include clearly associated alt text.

    To save time, write your alt text as you add your figures to your article, rather than writing them all at the end of the writing process.

    And that is it – it is as simple as it sounds.

    Here is an example of clearly associated alt text.

    Photograph of the word ‘Hope’ held up with two hands, silhouetted against a orange sunny sky.

    Figure 1 alt text: Photograph of the word ‘Hope’ held up with two hands, silhouetted against a orange sunny sky.

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