No task involved in producing a newspaper has a greater disparity between its importance to the reader and its attention from most newsrooms than writing cutlines. Too often they are the first thing the reader reads (sometimes even before the headlines) and the last thing the newsroom slaps together.
Monica Moses, deputy managing editor for visuals at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, explains the importance of cutlines: “They can be to stories what trailers are to movies--intriguing, compelling previews.”
* Start strong.
Choose your first few words carefully. They should start to tell the reader immediately about the photo. A cutline is no place for a delayed lead.
* Answer questions.
The cutline should answer any questions the reader has in looking at the photo: Who is this? Where is this? What’s happening here? If the photo depicts someone injured or in danger, or any element of suspense, tell the reader how it came out (she later died, he was rescued, etc.). The cutline should interest the reader in the story but should not force the reader to read the story to find out what happened in the photo.
* Don’t insult the reader.
You do need to tell what’s happening, but you don’t need to state the obvious. If the picture shows Manny Ramirez swinging a bat and the ball is past his bat, headed for the catcher’s mitt, don’t write, “Manny Ramirez swings and misses.” The reader can see that. Write, “Manny Ramirez strikes out to end the game with the tying run at third base.”
* Match your tone to the photo.
A fun feature photo demands a fun cutline. A tense photo needs a tense cutline. An action photo needs active verbs. An emotional photo should have a cutline that reflects, or at least respects, the emotions.
* Follow style.
Learn your newspaper’s style for cutlines. Do you write in past tense or present? Do you shift from present tense when talking about the scene in the photo to past tense when talking about the event beyond the moment pictured?
* Standalone cutlines are news stories.
When you’re writing cutlines for a photo that stands alone, keep in mind that your cutlines are, in effect, a news story. You need to be sure you cover the 5 Ws, or at least who, what, where and when.
* Consider context.
Context often is an important part of the cutline. The photo shows clearly what was happening at that moment, but the cutline puts it into context (winning touchdown, losing vote, etc.).
* Identify important people.
Cutlines should identify people involved in the action of the photograph. You also should consider identifying (or cropping out) recognizable people on the periphery. If the photographer failed to get IDÕs, you should not run the photo without a compelling reason to run it anyway.
* Check names.
Newspapers get names wrong in cutlines more often than in news stories. Check the name not only against the photographer’s notes but against your clips, the phone book, Google and online databases. Call the subject if you have to resolve a discrepancy over spelling the name.
* Check the photo.
After you write the cutline, check it against the photo. Make sure the person you say is on the left is really on the left.
* Copy edit and spellcheck.
Be sure that you spellcheck the cutlines and have another copy editor read them. Cutlines deserve as thorough editing as stories.
* Check for consistency.
Read the cutline, headline and story together. The cutline should neither contradict nor echo the headline and the story.
* Cutlines demand disclosure.
If the photo was posed, the cutline should reflect that, unless it’s obvious. Err on the side of disclosure. If you’re writing cutlines for a photo illustration that has somehow altered the content of the photo, you absolutely have to identify it as a photo illustration, either in the cutline or in the credit line.
* Make sure.
Ask the reporter and photographer if you’re not sure what’s happening, what the context of the photo was and/or who some people are.