Writing articles – Captions

Captions are important not only for the images themselves, but for the entire article’s readability and visibility for search engines. Therefore, captions are not to be seen as a chore to be gotten rid of, but rather as an opportunity to make the experience better for the reader, and to recruit more readers.

Readers look at a photograph first, then the caption under the photo. If the caption intrigues them by providing context and background information, readers will look back at the photograph and see something new. It’s called the loop, and their next stop is the story.
– Rob Melton, Contributing Editor • September 30, 2012

Some rules for captions

A caption should complete the photo. The reader should not have to look at the story, but should want to look at the story.

Captions must be relevant to the article’s theme. A caption about something totally different from the article’s subject is useless and of no value. Even if the picture isn’t the best available, it is generally possible to write a relevant and informative caption for it. This will increase the value of an otherwise uninspiring picture.

Avoid repetition
Captions should not repeat information that is in the text, but if it can not be avoided, at least don’t do it verbatim: Rewrite the info before putting it in the caption.

All captions should consist of complete sentences
Just as in links, headlines, intro texts and other texts, in captions you must use complete sentences that are grammatically correct and make sense.

Avoid using captions that are unnecessarily long
Three lines of text is the absolute maximum, so captions may be longer for main pictures than for pictures in the left column.

Do not describe or refer to the picture
A good caption is relevant to the picture content and should not describe or refer to the picture, but provide extra information (and thus value) for the reader.

Keywords and names
Include keywords and/or geographical names whenever possible, but not too many or if it ruins readability.

Vary the captions
Try to vary captions within the same article. Repetition is boring, so avoid it whenever possible. Just as two very similar pictures in the same article will compete and largely kill each other, so too will (nearly) identical captions. Also, take care to vary the way you begin captions.

10 additional tips for writing good captions

  1. Avoid stating the obvious. («Dennis Rodman smiles as he kicks a broadcast photographer in the groin.«)
  2. Do not begin with the words a, an or the.
  3. Avoid past tense. Use present or future tense to describe action in a photo. A photograph captures a moment in time; present tense will create a sense of immediacy and impact.
  4. Give readers information they cannot get from just looking at a photo.
  5. Do not begin a caption with names.
  6. Check the facts and be accurate.
  7. Write captions so they go from specific to general or general to specific.
  8. Don’t assume or make judgments. Ask questions in your effort to inform and be specific.
  9. Conversational language works best. Don’t use clichés. Write the caption as if you’re telling a family member a story.
  10. Don’t try to be humorous when the picture is not.