Improve your captions today

By Gregg McLachlan

Cutlines. They lead an unglamourous existence in the lives of many journalists. They're an afterthought. We type them after we've written our stories. We often forget to write them. This explains why many a newsroom features Editor A yelling to Reporter B, "Hey, where's your cutline!" And when we do write them, we mess up and have to write corrections. Ever notice how many corrections are because of inaccuracies in captions?

Face it, we don't consider cutlines to be high on the list of importance. After all, nobody's won a Pulitzer for a caption. Our energy goes into our 600-word stories, not 45-word cutlines.

But good captions might win you some readers too.

In this era of hustle and bustle, cutlines are important. People don't have time to read every story. But they will scan photos and cutlines. Why? Because they are a quick read. And if they are done well, and there is an accompanying story, readers may jump to the story.

Here are 10 tips to help you write better cutlines:

1. Don't insult your readers.

If you have a photo of an environmentalist standing next to a fence at a toxic dump site, don't write, John Johnson is standing next to the fence. . . Your readers know that. Good photos already tell part of the story. In your caption, tell readers something more, besides the obvious. Why is John Johnson at the site? What concerns does he have?

2. Cutlines are mini stories.

Think TV newscast. When you watch the nightly news, the anchor will give you the basics - When, What, Where, Who, Why and How - as film footage rolls. Essentially, the anchor is giving viewers a caption. The anchor may have just 30 seconds, but the details he/she gives are crucial. In the newspaper, you don't have much space, but what you do wth a three-sentence cutline is just as important. Check out the following cutline.. It covers the bases:

(Who) Nine-year-old Joey Smith of (Where) Bayham is managing his (what) diabetes with help from parents (Who) Ann and Gary. The (What) Southeast Diabetes Research Foundation has named Ben its goodwill ambassador for this (When) Sunday's first annual (How) Walk to (Why) Cure Diabetes event in (Where) Bayham.

3. Who's who?

It's one of the simplest parts of a cutline, yet, it's one of the most overlooked basics: Identifying who's where in your cutline. Readers don't have ESP. Readers don't know who's on the left, who's on the right, or who's in the centre. Tell them. When it's not clear who's who, you must give your readers some help. And for readers' sake, do it simply. Don't write, John Johnson, second from left in the middle row starting next to the boiler room door opposite the men's washroom . . . Don't turn your cutline into a maze. Your readers will get lost. If you don't believe it ask our proofreader. He gets lost trying to figure out who's who in many captions. . . because reporters forget to make it clear.

4. Names.

Names. Names. Get names in your cutlines. Photos record history. When you fail to get the names of the people in your photos, you're recording a blank for history. Are we really doing our job when readers open up the newspaper and see a cute photo of a kid eating ice cream at a festival, and then remark, "Nice photo, but who's the kid?" Imagine how the kid's family feels. People like to see their name in print. And that means cutlines too.

5. Attitude counts.

Don't view cutlines as added workload. Start viewing them as value added.

6. Keep accurate notes.

The root of many errors in cutlines is in our notebooks. Scribblings that we can't decipher when we're back in the office sitting at our desks. Out-of-order notes that don't correlate to the order of photos. It's no wonder why so many cutlines incorrectly identify people. If you took a photo of Bubbly Bill, make sure your notetaking enables you to identify him as Bubbly Bill, not Lively Larry (the guy in the other photo you took).

7. Write like it's happening now.

Your caption represents a specific moment in time captured by a photograph. The photo is the window that takes readers to the scene as it's happening. Example: 1) A Nigerian technician prepares to cull all the fowl at a chicken farm on the outskirts of Kano yesterday. Rather write prepared, the writer uses prepares. Example: 2) Afghan boys and girls overcome their shyness and venture into the sandlot next to the Canadian compound on Tuesday. This is far better than Afghan boys and girls overcame their shyness and ventured into the sandlot next to the Canadian compound on Tuesday.

8. Quality control.

It's drilled into our heads to doublecheck and triplecheck our news copy. Captions deserve the same attention, not less. How many times have you seen a name in a cutline spelled differently than in the story? How many times have you seen typos? Get it right in your captions too. You spend hours on your stories to get them right. Don't let your guard down for three minutes to write a three-sentence cutline.

9. The little important stuff.

Cutlines can be a great, reader-friendly place to put stuff that readers need to know quickly. A local theatre group is performing next month. Why not put ticket information and the box office phone number in the caption? Perhaps your photo involves conflict (neighbour protesting against city hall). Why not include a quote from the neighbour to humanize the impact of the conflict? If it's a sports cutline, include the date, time of the team's next game. Cutlines can be useful. And never forget the other little important stuff: street names, ages, town, time of day.

10. Look at your photo before you write the cutline.

OK, it sounds ridiculous to even say this. But it happens over and over again. A cutline looks like it has no relevance to the photo. The answer is obvious: another rushed cutline, done from memory, because after all, cutlines are a hassle and a burden on our time. What's worse, the reader knows it: "The caption says this, but it looks like he's doing this. . .," they wonder. Or, even worse, "I don't think the writer was even at this event, judging by what's written here!" Don't churn out your cutlines like they're part of an assembly line. Put some thought into them.