'Oh Caption, My Caption!' How To Write Great Captions

Oh Caption, My Caption! Let’s get underway with captions...

Aye, aye, captain! Caption writing can be a shipwreck. But it’s time to batten down the hatches and set the course for smooth sailing.

Walt Whitman once shared his secret for writing: “The secret of it all, is to write in the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment – to put things down without deliberation – without worry about their style…”

When it comes to captions, we could learn a little from the beloved American poet. Let’s stop worrying so much about the style and get all the information on the page. We can always go back and clean up the writing. 

Rocky seas

It’s okay for captions to have a rough start. That’s perfectly normal. Let’s just make sure we have all the tools on board to have a safe journey. As we work on captions, let’s begin with research. Gather all the information to fill in the reader – who, what, where, when, why and how.

Who: Identify everyone in the photo (left to right) with first and last names, correctly spelled. Verify names and grades with a master list. (If there are more than five people, you can collectively name them as a group, but consider indexing their individual names).

What: Find out what’s happening in the image. Ask specific questions so you’ll be able to clearly explain it to readers.

Where: Find out the specific location. Ask if there’s anything unique about the spot.

When: Ask when the picture happened, what day and time.

Why: Expand coverage by getting behind-the-scenes information. This is a great way to elicit emotions and thoughts for a quote.

How: Dig deeper by getting the inside scoop. Learn the background info or what made the event/scene come together.

If you prefer a handout, here’s a Balfour Square and a worksheet that walks you through the ABCs of captions. Once you have all the information, throw it together in a first stab at a caption. Some tips:

  • Write the first sentence in present tense describing the action captured in the picture.
  • Write a second sentence in past tense that provides additional information.
  • Finish with a quote that adds details, commentary or thoughts about the event photographed.

Know the ropes

It’s okay for captions to have a rough start. That’s perfectly normal. Let’s just make sure we have all the tools on board to have a safe journey. As we work on captions, let’s begin with research. Gather all the information to fill in the reader – who, what, where, when, why and how.

Once it is all down on paper, it’s time to focus on the style.

Consider adding a caption headline to grab the reader’s attention. Caption heads resemble primary headlines – they feature two to three words or a catchy phrase to spark interest. Often, staffers employ a literary device, like a pun or alliteration for the caption headline. Visual additions like caps, bold and/or a color can also capture viewers. 

Instead of beginning with the names, add an action lead-in to draw interest to the caption. Varying the starts can help avoid visual-verbal monotony. Adverb, gerund and prepositional leads are just three of numerous ways to start the caption. (For more options, see our handy list of 12 caption leads.)

Clean up the writing by eliminating unnecessary language. Avoid vague words like many, several, a lot and some. Instead use specific numbers and details.

Avoid interjecting any opinions into the caption information. Let the quotes say the subject was happy, it was a good game or they worked hard. Do not use the words success, successful, dedicated or diligent.

Remove the school name or initials in captions. It’s not necessary to mention because it’s your school’s yearbook. It’s clear you’re referencing your school. As much as possible, avoid mentioning the mascot in sports’ captions.

Speaking of sports, make sure captions include the team played. If sub-varsity teams share space, include the team’s level as well (e.g. In the junior varsity Rockwell game…). Try to include statistics and/or game results in the second sentence.

Strive for strong quotes that give the reader an in-depth look into the club, event or game. Avoid generic quotes like, “We’re a family,” “We worked really hard,” or “We gave 110%.”

Sailing home

Caption writing shouldn’t make us shudder and cringe. Digging for a little more information, writing right away and then refining captions can help create strong copy in yearbooks. Before you know it, you’ll be calling yourself Captain Caption and sailing home with beautiful yearbook in sight.