June 12, 2009 / Copywriting

Captions extend visuals

Written by Bruce Konkle

Talking with students about the 5 Ws and 1 H used to mean that the news lead most certainly was the topic at hand. No longer. Talking about the who, what, when, where, why and how could also mean you’re discussing the writing of in-depth captions for your yearbook.

No longer are yearbook captions merely labels telling readers that ‘a student sits at a desk in math class.’

No longer do yearbook captions insult readers by stating the obvious, things they can deduce by simply looking at the photograph.

No longer are yearbook captions thought of as problem areas for designers to ‘work around.’

In-depth Captions
In-depth captions for your yearbook photographs are in vogue because they can: help hook the reader into the feature on the spread; extend the visual coverage of a photograph’s content; and give readers specific information they want to know, including names, times, dates, events, results of events and hundreds of other bits of information that bring the individual situation in a photograph back to life many years after it was taken.

Steps for writing in-depth captions include: getting a photographer to write down information about the photograph when he/she takes it; getting spread designers to consider leaving the appropriate space for in-depth captions on all spreads; making sure the original caption writer goes beyond the obvious and tells readers something they would not be able to figure out for themselves by simply looking at the photograph; and having a designated caption editor on your staff so you can be assured that consistency of style and quality of content stays intact throughout the entire book.

Training Photographers
Photographers can be trained to jot down information about a situation they are photographing. It is easier to get names when you are on site; it is easier to know whether what you shot was at a critical moment; it is easier to write down immediate feelings and facts that come during those specific times of events that you have photographed.

Watch professional photographers as they cover news or sporting events and you will see a pen and notepad as standard equipment. Photographers need to simply train themselves to take notes while shooting their assignments; they should have a better sense of what is going on than a caption writer could possibly have three weeks later while sitting in the yearbook room looking at a photograph.

Working with Designers
Designers can also be trained to leave appropriate space above, beside or below photographs so writers can give worthwhile information in all captions. The standard ‘leave 2 picas of space’ for captions is dated; leave four or more picas, depending on your column width, and force writers to spend more time creating captions that extend the content of all photographs.

Captions also need to be considered as possible design elements as well. Interesting use of catchlines, screens, boldface type or large initial letters can visually link a caption to its photograph and help unite the entire spread. Using boldface type for captions is especially effective since photographs, from a designer’s viewpoint, are considered black areas of a spread, and linking those black areas with their boldfaced captions makes perfect visual sense. Using boldface type is also appropriate when designers continue to use 8-or 9-point type. Boldface type is naturally easier to read than 8-or 9-point regular or italic type. Those teenage eyes might not have problems reading small type but consider what might happen 20 years from now when your readers might start squinting a bit to focus on those small words.

Caption Writer Pointers
Caption writers must make concerted efforts to do a better job with captions than they have ever done before. They can not be content with just using a person’s name and stating the obvious. They must think in terms of ‘what was the result of this action’ or ‘why was this a critical moment in time to picture in their yearbook.’

They must also learn to use active verbs instead of passive verbs; they must learn to vary phraseology; they must learn to identify all people correctly. If section editors are expected to write captions for their sections only, they must consider the importance of developing a caption style sheet. Then they must stick by it, referring to it every time they write captions and check page proofs.

Consider a Caption Editor
A caption editor might be an appropriate position to consider if you have had trouble getting in-depth captions into your book. A caption editor should know how to: expand necessary information; vary opening words and phrases in captions on a spread; proof all names and words very closely and, in fact, systematically; and to edit the caption for the amount of space left by the spread designer.

This person, in general, should be a strong writer and a meticulous proofreader. The student must also understand the importance of maintaining consistency in style, both verbal and visual, throughout a section and throughout the entire yearbook. The aforementioned style sheet for each section or entire book is also a must for a caption editor to develop.

What Is in Vogue
One-sentence captions used to be in vogue. No longer. Some award-winning books have captions that, indeed, are three or more sentences. The first sentence is usually in present tense while the remaining sentences revert to past tense. And many captions begin with lead-in words or phrases that serve as mini-headlines. These catchlines, as they are often called, catch the reader’s attention and visually drag the person into reading the caption. It is a caption design technique but it also works best when the caption writer has chosen clever lead-in words. Common phrases, either ones that are part of current student slang or ones that are heard repeatedly in radio and television commercials, tend to be quite effective.

Keep 5Ws and H in Mind, However
Do keep those 5 Ws and 1 H in mind as you write your news articles for journalism classes. But also keep them in mind as you write those popular in-depth captions for your yearbook photographs. Staffs using in-depth captions are realizing that they are giving their readers pertinent information about an event or situation. They are also realizing that strong captions often hook a reader into the feature on the spread.

In-depth captions can go a long way for writers and designers, and staffs striving to be on that elusive ‘cutting edge’ of yearbook design should certainly evaluate the importance of putting the traditional 5 Ws and 1 H of the news lead to work for them as they write their yearbook captions.

Bruce Konkle

Dr. Bruce Konkle's previous work experience includes being a journalism teacher and publications adviser at Homestead High School in Fort Wayne, Ind. He is the former director of the South Carolina Scholastic Press Association and former director of the Carolina Journalism Institute.