A collection of thoughts on cutlines …

Unknown author …

In general: View captions as an opportunity to draw the reader further into your package; use them to tell a part of the story not told elsewhere. Obviously, you need to identify any people or situations pictured, and occasionally you do need to describe what is happening, but on the whole, avoid describing the obvious. Go beyond what the reader can see. If a drug addict is clearly shooting up, don’t tell me she’s shooting up. Tell me that just outside the frame her 4-year-old is watching. Or tell me how much that hit is costing her and how much she makes an hour. If an image shows neighborhood kids  silhouetted against the spray of a fire hydrant on a hot day, tell me how long the gusher lasted or how hot it was that day or that at one point 30 kids were playing there. Give the reader something he can’t tell just by looking at the picture. Generally, rather than  description, the reader needs background information.

Identifying subjects: When identifying people in a shot with more than one person, use “left,” “center” and “right” and variations of those (far right, top center, from left, etc.) — but only when absolutely necessary because they are somewhat disruptive and complicate matters. You would not, for example, need to use this style if only a man and woman are pictured, unless of course, one could be mistaken for the opposite sex or one or both of their names are gender ambiguous. Similarly, a child and an adult would not need positional identifiers if you give the child’s age, which is customary for those younger than 18. If you do use positional identifiers, you’d do well to avoid beginning sentences with them (especially the first one). Occasionally it might make sense to identify someone by what they are wearing or doing, and that’s probably OK so long as it’s the clearest and least obtrusive way.

Dates: Whether you are submitting pictures to a news wire service or to your newspaper’s photo editor, by all means note the date on which the image was shot. This information is very helpful to various people in the production process. But please, please don’t force an awkward and artificial construction for the sake of including the date within the caption text. This rarely works well. (One efficient and unobtrusive way to include it is in parentheses after the last sentence.) On top of that, the date is rarely so essential as to merit notation. Work it into the text only when the date itself is newsworthy or significant (Sept. 11 and July 4 come to mind.) Remember that newspapers use a folio on every page, so if the date is mentioned at all it will likely take the form of “yesterday” or “Monday” or something of that nature rather than the actual date.

For multiple-picture packages: Watch that you don’t repeat information. Treat your captions as a second story of sorts, one that is read in order as you lead readers through your images. This means that you introduce ideas, topics and people in the first image where  they appear, then use style appropriate for subsequent references. For example, in a personality profile, you won’t want to repeat the subject’s first and last name in every caption, rather first and last in the first image, then first or last in later images, depending on the tone of your story or your publication’s preference. Similarly, locations (ie. state references) and full names of organizations can be established early on, then omitted (in the case of states) or abbreviated (either with an acronym or shortened version, as useage dictates, in the case of group names). One more note, make sure to give all the basics in the first (or lead) caption. It’s not OK to give a subject’s age in the last photo on a two page spread.




By Madelyn Ross,  The Pittsburgh Press

Although you can write a story or take a picture that helps society, you can hardly ever correct a social ill in a caption; you never get a byline on a cutline to add to your clip book; you’ll never accept a plaque for best caption in the state; and they’d never make a movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman about two journalists who brave the power elite and a parking garage to write the cutline that brought down the government.

But cutlines not only get no respect, they get no time.  Why do we spend a week researching a story, two hours on the perfect lead, three days getting just the right photographs, half a day on layout and design, and 32 seconds writing a cutline that will be one of the first things the reader sees?

Likewise, why does a photographer spend two hours waiting for just the right angle, lugging around heavy equipment, going through physical contortions so that the picture is exquisite, and then provide this information for the cutline writer:   Lisa,  Mona, 28, smiling while sitting on a chair.

Because there’s neither the time nor the inclination by either writer or photographer to get good cutlines, captions across the country–from mediocre newspapers to the premiere newspapers–are uniformly lousy, representing the worst and most embarrassing writing in our newspapers.

Yet artful cutlines are crucial to excellent newspapers, or newspapers that want to be excellent, because they are the most obvious link between writing and graphics.  They unify the parts of a package so that our readers see connections.  A strong cutline that imparts information and upholds the mood of the photograph and accompanying story is an axle that keeps every- thing moving in the same direction.  An empty cutline full of cliches and puns and stating only the obvious takes readers nowhere at best and, at worst, sends an otherwise good package careening out of control.

Here are seven categories of common cutline mistakes and possible solutions:

1. The thanks for nothing cutline:   This is the one that tells you exactly what you see.  Most brains do the same job in a microsecond.  But on the chance that our readers are brain dead, we help out.

The corrective action is simple:  If the action in a photograph is obvious, never describe it in a cutline.  If the readers’ brains are functioning, they might decide they don’t need us.  All cutlines should provide helpful information.

2. The Harvey cutline:   If you see big white rabbits, but the reader doesn’t, keep it to yourself.  Cutlines should never describe visual elements not in the picture.  Cutlines should always give pertinent information especially if it is not shown in the picture.

3. The dampened enthusiasm cutline:   This is the caption that uses a cliche or other overcooked phrase, the most common of which is “didn’t dampen the enthusiasm” used when anyone is not in tears during a rainstorm.

Cutline writers have even developed their own cliches:  “Sharing a Joke” (whenever more than person is laughing) and, of course, the ubiquitous, “All Smiles,” whenever anyone is not distraught.

If you’ve heard it before, don’t use it in a cutline, or your readers will think they’re looking at yesterday’s newspaper.  A cliche is bad in a story, but it’s deadly in a cutline where it can’t be hidden among paragraphs of real information.

4. Cutline Puns:   Puns, as you know, make intellectuals and sophisticates throw up.  That’s why we like them.  But they are the lowest form of cutline writing.  They take up space, are not informative and rarely appreciated.  The word is cutlines,  not cutelines.  Keep them simple, straightforward and informative.

5. The moon, top, over Miami, left, cutline:   Just as stories have tone, photographs have mood.  Cutlines that fail to sustain that mood throw cold water in the face of our readers.

Cutline writers should always ask themselves:  What is the intent of this photograph?  Is it to show the reader a one-time and specific action or scene?  Or is it to represent a universal theme or human condition?  Of course, nothing breaks a mood quicker than the intrusive use of right, left, center, above, or other road signs.

6. The Mr. Ed cutline:   These are captions that put words into the mouth of a horse, dog, goat, cow, or worse yet, guess at their innermost thoughts.  You know you’re in trouble with any cutline that begins:  These pigs seem to be wondering if the silo behind them will one day contain Pershing II missiles.

I don’t know who they think is dumber–our readers, or a horse that enjoys a chain in its mouth and soap in its eyes.  Besides thinking animals, cutline writers also think for children, who always seem to be wishing, hoping, believing or delighting in something.

Cutline writers shouldn’t think for anything or anyone in the photograph.  The words, “seems to be,” should be banished from caption vocabulary.

7. The UFO cutline:   This is when a cutline says something the reader just doesn’t believe.


The remedy for this problem:  Cutline writers should be required to look at the picture before writing, and then don’t lie.

Given all these problems, what can you do about them?

First, involve top management into improving cutlines.  Because cutlines depend on both photographers and writers, the responsibility for getting good cutlines is confused.  Is your graphics editor responsible, is your news editor, is your city editor?

Who’s in charge? Because of this confusion, the interest of your top management is crucial to getting off square one.

Second, involve your photographic staff in the process.  The photographers must provide the information for your writers to work with.  Design a picture assignment form that allows the photographer to provide enough information.  Then, train the photographers to be reporters.

As we all become more sophisticated graphically, we’re asking reporters to help us think graphically.  Likewise, photographers must think like reporters.

The photographers’ information accompanying pictures should read like a short story and contain at least three times as much data that can ever be used in a cutline.  Be sure photographers have the to clearly tell what the picture is about.  Be sure they record the phone number of the subjects in the pictures.

Train your writing staff through several cutline sessions.  Obviously,  it’s best to have the reporter on the story also write the cutlines for the accompanying pictures.  When that is impossible, select your best writers as cutline experts.

Traditionally, because we often use general assignment staff to write cutlines on deadline, and because general-assignment people are often the youngest employees, we put cutlines in the hands of inexperience when we should be doing  just the opposite.

Good cutline writing is difficult — it requires the tightest, brightest writing.  It requires taste and judgment.  It requires wit and the uncommon vision that allows your best reporters to make connections for readers.  When the rest of your staff begins to recognize good cutline style, they’ll begin to use it.

If you improve your cutlines — even if you do nothing else — you’ll immediately raise the level of your paper.

Your newspaper will appear to be more polished, more sophisticated, more careful of detail.  And best of all, it will help the reader make those vital connections between words and graphics that will make them better informed.



By Judith Cartwright,  Newsday

Defining a good cutline isn’t easy; neither is writing one.

To begin with the obvious:

* A cutline should be specific.

* It should be tailored to the photo.

* The editor writing the cutline needs to understand the reason the photo is being used.

Now, a few words of explanation, based on a recent case.

An explosion destroys two buildings, a few people are killed, many injured.  Photographers have captured a variety of scenes.  Yet almost all the photos have an obvious thing in common: rubble.  The news editor selects photos; now it’s up to a copy editor to write the cutlines.

First, the not-uncommon result:  Each cutline covers the same obvious information, and read (with slight variation) as follows:

Firefighters rescue a victim from rubble of building toppled by explosion.

It’s easier to write a cutline based on the general information in a picture than to capture the specificity of each photo.  But that specificity — first obtaining it, and then conveying it — needs to be the cutline writer’s goal.

Now, two more cutlines that work because of detail and the precision of the words used:

1. Rescue workers lift the third man rescued from the rubble of explosion at Third Avenue and 141st Street.

2. Firefighters carry injured man across layers of roofing that blanket debris from collapsed buildings.

Providing detail and precision gets to the heart of a cutline:  the photo’s reason for existence.  An  example:  The explosion photo chosen for Page 1 shows several rescue workers, primarily their backs, huddled around something, but the focus of their attention is not visible.  The photographer says they are pulling a man from the debris, but we can’t see that man.  One of the workers holds aloft an intravenous unit.  That IV bag, while not the focal point to the picture, is readily apparent and is the detail that gives the scene meaning.

Two cutlines:

1. Rescuers free Norberto Luna, who was trapped for six hours beneath rubble of Bronx bodega.

2. Firefighter holds IV unit above Norberto Luna as he was rescued after being trapped in debris for six hours.

I used the second one.  That’s a case when specificity and focus convey the meaning of the image, and when an editor, paying close attention, can draw the reader’s attention to pertinent visual information.

Obtain detail by getting the photo editor and, when possible, the photographer on the phone.  (The photographer is the only one who can tell the desk that the rescuers are carrying the third victim; that Luna was trapped for six hours.)  Better yet, develop a caption policy that requires photographers to provide details.  (But when that doesn’t work, call them.)

Attempts at providing detail should not lead to pointing out the obvious.  If the action in a photo is apparent, documenting it with words becomes redundant:

President Bush shakes hands with Prime Minister Blai

Document the action when that action isn’t immediately recognizable, is necessary to understand the photo or event, or is unusual and, thus, worth noting.  In other words, it’s up to the editor’s judgment.  As an example:  If Bush had just recovered use of his hand after an injury, the act of shaking hands would be worth pointing out.  (In the example above the verb could be changed to “greets,” “congratulates” or whatever is accurate to convey the meaning behind the physical act of shaking hands.)

Sometimes, when the action is obvious, avoiding a verb is preferable.  A photo at the press conference announcing Texaco’s bankruptcy filing had this cutline:

Texaco president James Kinnear, left, talks to Texaco board president Alfred DeCrane before yesterday’s press conference.

In place of “talks to,” I’d use “with”.  In this case, the action wasn’t worth the words.  However, if Kinnear had been screaming at DeCrane, the need for words (and detail to explain the context) becomes apparent.

Some other guidelines:

*  Don’t let cutlines repeat the headline.  That’s a waste of the reader’s time.

*  In most cases, begin the cutline with a noun and a verb conveying the action.  Use present tense; it conveys a sense of urgency.  Rely on past tense for other information not in the photo.  An example:

State investigators examine wreckage pulled from Schoharie Creek, site of a bridge collapse Sunday that killed six.

*  For stand-alone photos use the same structure (noun-verb, present tense) to begin the cutline.  Tell the story of the photo, or the story that accompanies the photo; that is, the reader should find sufficient information to understand the picture and the accompanying event/situation.

One last point:

*  When writing a cutline becomes laborious because the action in the photo is obvious, take another look at the photo:  Is that handshake picture really worth running?



By Karen Cater,  The Seattle Times

One thing about writing cutlines is obvious:  Don’t be.

Ask any photographer or editor how to write a cutline and he or she will tell you:  Never repeat what is obvious from the photo.  You waste your space and your readers’ time.  A caption that shouldn’t see print in anything but a junior-high newspaper:

Susie Swanson smiles as she receives a plaque from the mayor.

Worse still is the cutline writer who presumes to know what the subject is thinking.

Swanson smiles with joy as she receives a plaque from the mayor.

Who’s to know if she’s smiling with joy?  Maybe she’s smiling out of revenge because she got the award and her worst enemy didn’t.

OK.  That’s easy enough to fix.  How about:

Susie Swanson seems to be smiling with joy as she receives a plaque from the mayor.

Wrong.  Maybe she’s just faking it for the camera, all the while fuming that she should have gotten a fat check instead.  It’s best to avoid guessing at the subject’s innermost thoughts, or putting words in her mouth.  It makes the reader suspicious and it hurts your credibility.

So, you can’t be obvious and you can’t be clairvoyant.  What else should you watch out for?

*  The photo editor and the cutline writer should consult on what’s being cropped from the photo lest the caption refer to more than we end up showing the reader.

*  If there’s a significant detail that is hard to see in the photo, point it out in the cutline.  But if the important detail is so obscure that you need an arrow to pinpoint it, you’re probably better off using another picture.

*  If someone is prominent in a photo and you don’t say who it is, you can look pretty silly.  It is important that the photographer find out.  In rare cases, that can be impossible.  A murder suspect leaving court with a woman on his arm isn’t going to stop to let you ask her name.  So what do you do?  Do you ignore her?

Call her an “unidentified bystander”?  If you have to, you can get away with not identifying someone who isn’t instrumental to the story.  But your best bet is to crop out the unidentified subject, or choose a different picture.

*  Past-tense headlines read like yesterday’s news.  Present-tense captions give a sense of action, immediacy and life to a photo.

*  Directives can get cumbersome.

Susie Swanson, at left, Mayor Royer, in the foreground with the black hat on. . .

*  If you must run a group photo, make the directions simple.

From left, Susie Swanson, Mayor Royer and . . . 

*  Be honest.  If you’re using an old photo, say so in the cutline (“1997 photo”).  If you’re recycling something from your files put that in the credit (“Seattle Times, 1993”).

*  Cutlines should mirror the tone of the story.  If the photo shows a bubbly, grinning Tammy Baker, you probably shouldn’t use it along with a cutline and story about how distraught she is over her drug dependency.

*  Group cutlines for a series of photographs can confuse.  You’ll lose readers if they have to keep jumping back and forth from a block of cutlines to each photo on the page.

*  Cutlines should invite readers into a story.  They should grab the reader’s attention.  They should be compact.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, a cutline can be shorter.  The information should be pertinent.  Cutlines should be treated with the same care and attention given stories and headlines.

*  Handling the cutline gives you one more chance to consider whether there are any legal implications to the photo.  (Does your cutline identify someone as going into a crack house, when you don’t know for sure that’s what it is?)

*  Watch out for moral, ethical and human considerations.  Should you identify children in public places without getting the consent of the parents?  The Seattle Times did recently, and it turned out the mother was trying to hide the child from a divorced father after a previous abduction.

How do you get your staff to be on the watch?

Set forth a photo philosophy, and get everyone on board from top management to the darkroom.  Clarify the responsibility for cutlines, and ensure that the responsibility is met.

At The Seattle Times, basic tenets of cutline writing are published in our Newsroom Policies and Guidelines as well as in our Design Stylebook.  Those brief guidelines are amplified periodically by messages from our graphics director.

Here’s how our system works:

To begin with, our photographers think like reporters.  When a photographer goes out on assignment, with or without a reporter, he or she needs to understand the story in some depth in order to photograph it.  Like a reporter, the photographer pays careful attention to detail, getting ID’s of all subjects.  He or she makes note of any details in the setting that might add to the cutlines.

The photographer, closest to the action in the picture, writes the cutline.

Once the photographer and the photo editor have chosen what photo will be used, the photographer writes the cutline on a computer terminal, prints it out and pastes it to the back of the original.  After the size and placement of the photo are determined, the photo editor copies the print and cutline, and passes them to the appropriate assistant city editor to double-check the cutline against the story.

Then the copies go to the layout and copy editors who handle the story.  Copy editors are asked to apply the same standards to cutlines as they do to stories and headlines.  They make sure that names in the story and cutline are spelled consistently, that the cutline is fair, and that it doesn’t repeat the headline.  To ensure consistency, the copy editor reads the cutline, story and headline together.  All cutlines then go through a slot editor for another check.  Once the cutline and story are on a page, the makeup editor gives it a final look.

The process is less complex for wire photos, but our commitment to accuracy is just as strong.  It’s not unusual to find inaccuracies or conflicting spellings between a wire photo and the story it accompanies.  When that happens, the wire or copy editor calls the wire service to get the correct information.  If we can’t verify it, we don’t use it.

Occasionally something goes amiss, and we misidentify the subject of a photo.  Usually it’s because there’s been a breakdown in the system.  We trace back through the process until we discover where the breakdown occurred.  There is accountability at each step.  We remind the errant editors to follow procedures.  Safeguards work, but only if you use them.



By Colleen Conant,  The Memphis Commercial Appeal

Cutlines must meet the same standards of excellence as every other bit of type published in the newspaper.

The most important ingredient in producing a good cutline is a skillful photojournalist.  If the person who shot the picture fails to do solid reporting, the world’s most talented copy editor would have trouble writing a decent cutline.  Facts and a sense of the tone of the photograph are necessary to write a successful  cutline.  The best person to provide those elements is the one closest to the source — the photographer.

A cutline editor will take the photographer’s complete, fair and factual cutline and make it compelling.  The editor will also ensure that the facts in the cutline correspond to the facts in the story.  And if the facts do not mesh, the editor will track down the photographer and/or the reporter to reconcile the facts.

There are some do’s and don’ts:

*  Think of the cutline as a miniature story.

*  Double check the spelling of all proper names.

* Identify all the people in the photograph.

* Don’t give life to inanimate objects.  Resist the temptation to wax poetics over rocks and thistles.

* Don’t leave the reader guessing.  If the cutline prompts more questions than it answers, it is horrid.

* Don’t repeat details that are in the story unless necessary to make the cutline complete.  But don’t say too little because the photograph goes with a story.  There is every chance the reader will see only the photograph and the cutline, so give them something digestible.



By John Schlander and Rick Holter, St. Petersburg Times

A good caption writer helps the reader understand the significance of the photograph.  He points out aspects that might be misunderstood or missed on first glance.  He helps to put the work into context.

Some people say that the best photos speak for themselves.

That’s true, on a gut level, but, for example, a photo might show a man crying and car wreckage in the background.  A good caption would take the reader beyond the emotion by describing the circumstances and any other amplifying information.

In a series of photos describing a complicated scene, the caption should lead the reader through the action.  That sometimes means a longer — but by no means padded — caption.

In most cases, a good caption starts with good information gathered by the photojournalist.

The St. Petersburg Times caption writing is a three-stage process.  After the photographer takes the photo and gathers initial information, the reporter follows up at the scene or by making calls later.  The copy editor checks the information and actually writes the words that get in the paper.  The captions are complete sentences, including the articles, and in almost all cases, written in the present tense.


By John M. Hollon, The Orange County (CA) Register

What makes a good cutline? This is a easy enough question to answer.  A more complex mystery is why so many newspapers do not treat cutlines with the same care and concern showered on other parts of the desk operation.  While studies show that readers look at photos and cutlines before stories, cutlines are often handled in a hurried and haphazard fashion.

The basic qualitative goals are easy enough to set forth:

* BREVITY:  A cutline is the briefest of briefs.  It must give the reader enough information to understand what is going on in the photo in a few well-chosen words.

* ACCURACY:  Like stories and headlines, a cutline must above all be accurate.

* STYLE:  The best cutlines have a style that rivals the best stories.  A good cutline is precise in language and information, uses active verbs, and is clever when appropriate.

Cutlines for photos illustrating a story should be short and to the point.  The idea is to add information not conveyed in the headline.

Cutlines with photos that stand alone provide an opportunity to effectively create a small illustrated story.

Our cutlines are written on the copy desk for greater consistency and quality control.

We train copy editors to be skeptical of cutline information, both local or from the wire services.

We begin cutlines in the present tense, then usually change to the past tense to explain the photo.


By Erica Smith, The Virginian-Pilot & The Ledger-Star

A continuing complaint among editors is that we don’t have enough space to sell stories and tell readers what they need to know.  Yet we often neglect an obvious tool:  cutlines.

When writing cutlines try to:

* Supplement the head, don’t repeat it or the lead.

* Explain odd elements gracefully to add interest and amplify a photo.  For example, our profile of the new economic development director included his picture — with a couple of balloons behind him.  The editor wrote:  “Same game, bigger ballpark:  Hugh Keogh is leaving Forward Hampton Roads, congratulatory balloons and all, to become the state development director.”

* Write simply:  The best cutlines are written with no cuts or pretentious prose, no cliches, no painful puns that take the enjoyment out of the photo.

* Take the space you need:  Forget stringent rules on length; better to say what needs saying than to skimp on clarity.  But if you’re desperate to fill out the cutline, the weather forecast can be a good resource — on, say, scenic shots for which the photographer has little information.  Keep the heads for cutlines short and catchy for features; write cutlines for news photos like headlines.

* Avoid assumptions:  Speculation about what the subject might be thinking or doing is unnecessary and dangerous; it can be inaccurate and give a wrong impression.

* Check the facts:  Our photographers are responsible for gathering the cutline information.  It’s the copy editor’s job to make sure that the information is complete.  When we have questions, we ask photographers and photo editors.  We also go to reporters, clip files, phone books, city maps, city directories, publicity brochures and public-relations people.  Photographers should talk to subjects, get the basics and also quotes to enhance cutlines.