August 19, 2017

Make sure every picture tells a story

How to write compelling captions

Too often, editors crank out captions (aka cutlines) in the 15 minutes before happy hour on a Friday night.

How to write compelling captions

Reach ’em where their eyes are Captions can be workhorses of communications — but only if you use them and use them well. Image by Jay Wennington

Their loss.

“No task involved in producing a newspaper has a greater disparity between its importance to the reader and its attention from most newsrooms than writing cutlines,” writes Steve Buttry, American Press Institute’s director of tailored programs.

“Too often, they are the first thing the reader reads (sometimes even before the headlines) and the last thing the newsroom slaps together.”

Handled well, captions can be workhorses of communication. That’s because:

  • Images get the most viewership on a print page. (Online, eyetracking is very different.) That makes the caption, or caption under the image, a power point for communication.
  • Captions get 16 percent more readership than text.
  • Telling students what to look for in a picture increased comprehension, according to research by W.H. Levie and R. Lentz.
  • Removing the captions from a series of cartoons reduced recall by 81%, according to a study by Richard E. Mayer, et al. And it reduced problem solving, or the ability to apply the information, by 66%.
  • Text that’s larger or bolder than body copy gets more readership. Caption style at most publications stands out from the text.

As a result, captions offer an opportunity to draw the reader in and communicate to flippers and skimmers.

“(Captions) can be to stories what trailers are to movies — intriguing, compelling previews,” says Monica L. Moses, deputy managing editor/visuals for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

So don’t slap yours together at the last minute.

Catch readers with captions

Here are 12 ways to make the most of these power tools:

1. Include a caption with every image. Yep, every image. Even if:

  • It’s a small image.
  • The reader can easily tell what the image is.
  • It’s a conceptual illustration.


Because you’re not writing captions to explain what’s in the picture. You’re writing captions to draw readers in and communicate to flippers and skimmers.

2. Write subject, verb, object. Call them “action captions.” The way to capture the action is with a simple sentence and active verb. Which means you need to …

3. Avoid label captions. That’s where you simply describe what’s in the photo, such as “Bill, 42, holds a fish.” Even worse: “Loring Leifer, president, WordsWorth Communications.”

“Don’t insult your readers,” writes Gregg McLachlan, associate managing editor of the Simcoe Reformer. “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 …’”

Instead, use the photo as a jumping-off point to …

4. Deliver a key message. Encapsulate one of your key ideas into the caption. More people will get it than if you just run it in the body copy.

5. Include a catchline. A catchline is a mini “headline” for your caption. Adding one increases caption readership.

6. Complement the other display copy.
Captions work as a package with headlines, subheads, callouts and the other display copy on the page. Don’t repeat or contradict what you say in the other display elements.

7. Answer reader questions. If the CEO is wearing a cast, explain why. Otherwise, readers will be distracted by wondering.

8. Use a special typeface. Make the caption larger or bolder than the text. That will increase readership. I like a bold san-serif type, such as Arial, for captions.

9. Use the present tense. Write your cutline as if it’s happening now.

“Your caption represents a specific moment in time captured by a photograph,” McLachlan says. “The photo is the window that takes readers to the scene and captures ‘live’ action.”

10. Keep it short. Limit the depth to one inch. If your caption doesn’t look brief and scannable, it will lose its properties of attraction.

11. Avoid awkward navigation. If you’re writing “Bottom photo, clockwise from top left,” there’s too much going on.

“Don’t write, ‘John Johnson, second from left in the middle row starting next to the boiler room door opposite the men’s washroom,’” McLachlan counsels. “Don’t turn your cutline into a maze.”

12. Expand the caption into a mini-story. Given the power of images and captions, why not run an entire super-short story under the photo? Cover the 5 W’s, or at least the who, what, when and where. That will transform your photos and captions into little information modules.

  • Lift Your Ideas Off the Page or Screen

    Sixty percent of your audience members aren’t reading your copy, according to estimates by professors at the University of Missouri. So how can you craft communications that reach nonreaders?

    Use your display copy — headlines, decks and subheads, for instance — to pull readers into your copy, make your piece more inviting and even communicate to flippers and skimmers.

    Catch Your Readers - Ann Wylie's persuasive-writing workshop in Kansas City on Nov. 16-17, 2017 imageAt Catch Your Readers — a two-day Master Class on Nov. 16-17 in Kansas City — we'll debunk destructive writing myths. You'll leave with scientific, proven-in-the-lab approaches for getting people to pay attention to, understand, remember and act on your messages.

    • Reach “readers” who spend only two minutes — or even just 10 seconds — with your piece.
    • Avoid dropping the piece of display copy that 95% of people read — but that many communicators forget.
    • Run a simple test on your message to ensure that even folks who will not read your message no matter how well you write it still get your key ideas.
    • Make your copy 47% more usable by adding a few simple elements.
    • Pass the Palm Test to make your message look easier to read. Because if it looks easier to read, more people will read it.

    Learn more about the Master Class.

    Register for Lift your ideas writing workshop in Boston

    Browse all upcoming Master Classes.

    Would you like to hold an in-house Catch Your Readers workshop? Contact Ann directly.


Sources: Steve Buttry, “Writing Alluring Cutlines,”

Mario R. Garcia and Pegie Stark, Eyes On the News: The Poynter Institute Color Research, The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, 1991

Peter S. Houts, Cecilia C. Doak, Leonard G. Doak, Matthew J. Loscalzo, “The Role of Pictures in Improving Health Communication: A Review of Research on Attention, Comprehension, Recall, and Adherence” (PDF), Patient Education and Counseling, vol. 61, 2006, p.173-190.

W.H. Levie, R. Lentz, “Effects of text illustrations: a review of research,” ECTJ 1982, vol. 30, pp. 195-232

Richard E. Mayer, William Bove, Alexandra Bryman, Rebecca Mars, and Lene Tapangco, “When Less is More: Meaningful Learning From Visual and Verbal Summaries of Science Textbook Lessons,” Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 88, No. 1, 1996, pp. 64-73.

Gregg McLachlan, “10 Tips for Better Cutlines: Improve Your Captions Today,”

Monica L. Moses, “Sell Stories! Write Great Captions,” More Eyes on the News, The Poynter Institute, Jan. 10, 2002


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