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Overviews made easy! Part 2: Bar charts

This is Part 2 of our Overviews made easy! series. Today, we’re going to look at bar charts.

If you haven’t read it already, make sure you check out Part 1: Line graphs

Remember that in Writing Task 1, the examiner will be looking very clearly for an overview. An overview is a one-sentence summary of the main trends or patterns in the graph. If you do not write an overview, you will hurt your writing score.

So how do we write an overview for a bar graph? First, we have to identify what kind of bar graph we’re looking at. There are two different kinds of bar graphs you might see. One shows trends, and the other shows patternsTrends are changes over time, so these bar graphs will measure time—usually in years, but sometimes also in months, weeks or even days. Patterns are differences between categories. There is no time element involved.

Let’s look at an example. Look at the two bar graphs below. Which one shows trends? Which one shows patterns?

Graph A

Graph B

The two graphs are quite similar. Both measure the sales of products at four different sweet shops. However, only Graph A has a clear time period, 1980 – 2010. Because it shows changes over time, Graph A clearly shows trends.

Graph B shows the sales from only one year (2010), which is not enough to show any change. Instead, it compares the sales of different products (or categories): cookies, cakes and ice cream. Therefore, Graph B shows patterns.

This might seem like a small difference, but it will affect the way we write our overview and organize our answer.


Bar graphs that show trends

For a bar graph that shows trends, we can write the overview the same way that we did for line graphs. (For more on this, read Part 1: Line graphs of our Overviews made easy! series.)

Let’s look at Graph A again.

Step 1: Identify the trend for each company.

            Sally’s Sweets            up (after a decline)

             Carol’s Candy            up (after a decline)

             Mark’s Muffins           up

             Bob’s Bakery              down

Step 2: Combine these into a single sentence.

              Despite differing trends, sales at three of the four shops rose overall during the period.

Step 3: Organize your body paragraphs

            Body 1: up (after a decline) – Sally’s Sweets and Carol’s Candy

            Body 2: up – Mark’s Muffins

            Body 3: down – Bob’s Bakery

Now you’re ready to write your answer!


Bar graphs that show patterns

Now, let’s look at Graph B again.

To find the overview, we’ll follow the same steps as above. The only difference is that, in Step 1, we will look at patterns, not trends.

Step 1: Identify the patterns.

We need to ask ourselves: Which product was the most popular? Least popular? In other words, which items had the largest sales and which had the smallest?

Fortunately, the answer is very clear in this graph.

            Cookies:          most popular

            Cakes:             in between

            Ice cream:       least popular 

Step 2: Combine these into a single sentence.

            Cookies were clearly the most popular item at each shop, while cake was the second-most popular and ice cream the least.

Step 3: Organize your body paragraphs

            Body 1: Cookies (most popular)

            Body 2: Cakes (second-most popular)

            Body 3: Ice cream (least popular)

And now you’re ready to write your answer!


Patterns – another way

But…with patterns, sometimes we may need to organize our answers a different way. Let’s look at one more example to show this.

Graph C

This graph is very similar to Graph B above. It shows the same four sweet shops, and it shows the same three products (cookies, cakes, ice cream). And again there is no change over time, so it shows patterns, not trends. However, the data in this graph look very different.

In Graph B, it made sense to organize by product. There was a clear separation in the data: cookies had the highest sales, cakes had the second-highest, and ice cream had the least.

However, in Graph C, it doesn’t make sense to organize our answer this way. Cookies are indeed the most popular at Sally’s Sweets, but this is not true for the other shops. Cakes are the most popular at Carol’s Candy and Mark’s Muffins, and ice cream is the most popular at Bob’s Bakery. There are not enough similarities in the product sales numbers. This won’t work for our overview.

Fortunately, there is another way to organize our answer: by shop. There is a clear difference between the amount sold at each shop. Sally’s Sweets and Carol’s Candy both had relatively high sales of each product. Mark’s Muffins and Bob’s Bakery had relatively low sales. So, we can organize our answer this way.

Step 1: Identify the patterns.

            Sally’s Sweets: high sales

            Carol’s Candy: high sales

            Mark’s Muffins: low sales

            Bob’s Bakery: low sales

Step 2: Combine these into a single sentence

            In general, Sally’s Sweets and Carol’s Candy had significantly higher sales of each product than did Mark’s Muffins and Bob’s Bakery.

Step 3: Organize your body paragraphs

            Body 1: high sales

                           Sally’s Sweets

                          Carol’s Candy

            Body 2: low sales

                          Mark’s Muffins

                          Bob’s Bakery

And again, you’re ready to write your answer!


So, remember: if you need to write an overview for a bar graph, it’s the same as a line graph. You just need to add one extra step in the beginning.

            Step 0: Decide whether the graph shows trends (changes over time) or patterns (differences between categories).

            Step 1: Identify the trends or patterns.

If patterns, decide which category has the clearest similarities and differences. (In our examples, we had a choice between the products or the companies.)

            Step 2: Combine these into a single sentence. This is your overview.

            Step 3: Organize your body paragraphs.