September 17, 2008 / Whitt and Wisdom

Make captions excite, headlines tout

Written by Anne G. Whitt, MJE

If good captions and headlines tend to escape your staff, try having them rewrite the body copy.

General, common copy spawns short, useless captions and label or cliché headlines. A real story about a real person in a specific incident feeds captions and headlines.

Good writing, whether in captions, headlines or body copy, means writing that offers readers either new information or old information expressed in a new way.

A tenet of good writing says, “If you want to show war, show one man’s war.” To the yearbook staff, this means, “If you want to show a school, show one person’s school.”

The school is the people who attend. Compiling a set of specific stories about the people at this school this year creates a unique history. Such yearbook stories will not sound like stories in any other book because every person’s story is different. Even coverage of the same events at your school will be different each year because every person’s story takes a different slant.

The names of the students in this story have been changed, but see how real people and incidents make a story more interesting.

“But,” Sean says, “as editor, I have to be sure we cover the whole school. How can we cover the school if we write individual stories?”

Each story happens in context.

Consider Gone With the Wind. The story, read and reread because of Scarlett’s passion for Ashley, also shows most readers as much as they care to know about the Civil War. The story takes shape in context.

The same principle applies to a yearbook story. Showing one student’s struggle in context will give readers information about the rest of the school.

Lara sits at the computer. She taps her teeth with her finger as she struggles for a caption. The photo shows two classmates smil for the camera. Once she records that line, her caption fund is depleted. She looks at the copy block only to find no mention of these two subjects. Stuck.

She picks another photo. The two soccer players look all excited. She looks to the copy block. She does not know, nor does the copy reveal, that Bruno, one of the pictured players, has just earned a hat trick, his second of the season. So she writes that the two celebrate another victory. That should cover almost any reason for the two to celebrate in the middle of the field. But it does not record the history of the team.

Near each of these photos Lara enters useless words – not false, just useless. Then she wonders why no one reads the words.

If Lara had found the real story, she could have created an accurate and interesting copy block, a headline that touted this specific story and captions that excited readers into reading the story.  She could have written that Bruno and Pablo celebrate Bruno’s second hat trick of the season. This score also tied the game before the team went on to win by one point. By the end of the season the sophomore had earned three hat tricks. He said, “It’s no big deal to me. In Brazil as soon as we could run, we played soccer.”

Such a caption, called a mini story, offers enough unique information to excite readers’ interest in the copy block.

Headlines advertise the copy block much as a store ad touts a specific product or sale. When the store has no special product or sale, the ads seem weak. The same applies to headlines. If the copy block has no unique information, the headline will be weak. This is why so many yearbooks top the drama story with “Lights, Camera, Action.”  The story containing no unique information leaves the headline with nothing to advertise. Using such a headline means the writer has no real story to tout. She pulled a cliché from memory. The yearbook lost another opportunity to be read.

Conversely, if a copy block shows Maxie’s struggle to earn a cast position during the three years since her lung and heart transplants, the photographer will have good shots of Maxie preparing and acting in her role. The real shots of a real person and a copy block explaining Maxie’s struggles in the theatre department will show the workings of the department as well. Her story, too, has context.

Liam asked whether writing stories about individuals might be a new trend in yearbooks. Writing well is not new. Writing about a specific person instead of writing about people has long been a factor in good writing. The Bible tells stories of individuals. Plato’s Republic tells stories of individuals. The journalists embedded among troops in Iraq send stories and faces of individual soldiers. Insisting on good writing in yearbooks is relatively new. The amount of copy, good or bad, in a yearbook generally decreases with the age of the book. First, copy had to appear in yearbooks. Improvement should follow.

Efforts to improve yearbooks and technology to allow freedom have resulted in unbelievably gorgeous new books. But a gorgeous book cannot tell the story of the year if nobody on the staff finds the story. The real story of this year at this school usually lies hidden behind the face of any student who attends the school. The more real stories the staff finds, the more value comes to the book. Real original stories mean unique information. The yearbook staff is embedded among the students on campus. Maximize the opportunity.

When an ATM card fails to yield money, usually the fault is not with the card itself but the machine or the account. So, when good captions and headlines escape the staff, instead of agonizing over the captions and headlines themselves, examine the story. If it is about students, the team, seniors or any other group of people, trash it. Find one student’s story. A real story about a specific person will make captions hardy enough to interest and headlines hale enough to tout the story.

Incidents are real. Names have been changed.

  • ireneee coikoh

    i think that this is wonderful because i like this and have a good day because it is what you need. well good bye and fairwelll

  • Ebony Taylor

    I think this is wonderful also cause i like it. And I agree, you need to have a good day. Ta-ta for now.

Anne G. Whitt, MJE

Anne Whitt, MJE, is a retired yearbook adviser who taught at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Fla., and at the community college level. She was named a JEA Distinguished Adviser in 2000, and the yearbook earned state and national honors throughout the decades that she taught.