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How-To Guide: The Nine Commandments of Caption Writing

If you write captions, listen here:

1. Don't state the obvious. We can see that he's waving, that they're shaking hands, that she's sitting at her desk. Tell us something we don't know. If there's nothing to tell, tell nothing.

2. Don't state the obvious. If Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) is the only one in the picture speaking, don't write:

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), center, speaks at a charity dinner.

If Buster Brown and his dog, Tighe, are pictured, don't write:

Buster Brown, left, lives in a shoe.

Man and pet, man and woman, person and cartoon character – probably don't need the directions. Don't laugh. I got a caption from one of my best editors recently that referred to:

Diana Ross, top, and SpongeBob SquarePants.

3. For the love of God, stop it with the caption-ese. "Gestures." Yeah. The camera happened to catch the poor schmuck's hand in the air and we have to glorify it with that stupid word. Save it for an actual demonstration of an actual gesture. "Looks on." Ugh. Better to be boring and write, "Next to him is . . ." And then there's "In happier times." Less horrible but probably more ubiquitous: "Chats." Nobody talks in a fricken caption; everybody "chats." Cut it out.

4. Pick a style – complete sentences or headlinese – and stick to it. I'm biased in favor of complete sentences:

President Bush greets a supporter at a campaign rally in Columbus.

But, if it's your style, go ahead and write:

President Bush greets supporter at campaign rally in Columbus.

5. Pick a style – explicit directions or trusting the reader – and stick to it. Are you going to specify "from left" every time, or are you going to trust your readers to understand that "left to right" is implied? I'm not advocating one approach or the other, but I am saying that once you've made that decision, you should live with its consequences.

CORRECT (EXPLICIT SCHOOL): Running around like chickens with their heads cut off are Stooges, from left, Larry, Moe and Curly.

CORRECT (TRUST-THE-READERS SCHOOL): Stooges Larry, Moe and Curly run around like chickens with their heads cut off.

NEITHER HERE NOR THERE: Stooges Larry, left, Moe and Curly run around like chickens with their heads cut off.

What's wrong with the last approach? Well, the readers know which one is Larry, but how do they know which is Moe and which is Curly? It's obvious in context, you say? Well, then, you want the trust-the-readers approach. Can't have it both ways.

6. No caption is an island. Well, unless it is. But if a photo comes with a story, and perhaps with other photos, remember that you're dealing with a single package – don't hit the reset button with each caption. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in the main caption is "Kerry" in the next caption. In fact, assuming the Sen. and the (D-Mass.) are in the story, just make him John F. Kerry, or even John Kerry, in the first caption. Similarly, don't bend over backwards to follow first-reference style at the expense of common sense. If a story is about Buffalo or Tulsa or Columbus or one of a few dozen other cities that are very well known but may not fall under your publication's "dateline city" rule, let the story do the work of inserting "N.Y." or "Okla." or "Ohio." The city alone will be quite understandable in the caption.

7. Courtesy OF. OF! No photo is "courtesy Smithsonian Institution." The expression makes no sense without the word "of." Style on credits varies, but another stupid credit trick that really annoys me is "handout photo." In the newsroom we call publicity photos and the like "handouts," but that's in-house jargon. They aren't really being handed out on street corners. Keep that jargon out of print.

8. Cut and paste. When a caption comes with a story, don't trust yourself to type names and other information. If you're using a computer, use the computer's cut and paste functions to transfer what the reporter wrote to the caption. What about what the photographer wrote? Use it strictly in an advisory capacity. Photographers are photographers, not writers. Some know how to write and spell; many do not. If the photographer and the reporter disagree on a spelling, by all means check it out, but if you must trust one source, the reporter is generally a better bet. I hate to hear copy editors refer to what the photographer wrote as "the caption." No. What you write is the caption. What the photographer writes is the caption information.

9. Write what you know. As a tennis fan, I've cringed at scores of captions pointing out that someone is "volleying" when in fact he's rallying, or that someone is "returning the ball to his opponent," when that's the last thing you'd want to do, or even that someone is "talking to the ball" because the camera happened to catch the player's mouth open. Rein yourself in if you don't necessarily know what you're talking about. We've all seen those Wall Street photos that catch a trader's lips turned down, or a trader's head in his hands, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average drops. Resist the temptation to infer that the trader is depressed by the Dow's drop. After all, it's not his money. The camera lies. It catches expressions and body positions that may have been true in the blink of the shutter but are misleading in context.

From The Slot,, a website by renowned copyeditor and author Bill Walsh