Editing 101: The Power of Good Pictures and Captions

By Jack Limpert

I recently helped judge the general excellence category of a magazine competition and again was surprised by how many editors don’t pay enough attention to the role that good photographs and captions play in getting readers to stay reading. Here are some thoughts from an earlier post plus some new suggestions.
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What Kind of Design Brings in Readers

Editors spend lots of time trying to come up with good story ideas, working with writers, editing stories. But if the magazine doesn’t have good heads, decks, pull quotes, and captions, a lot of those stories are likely to go unread.

Many readers graze—they flip through the pages looking for something that captures their attention. The elements that go with a story can be the difference between a reader spending five minutes with a magazine or an hour.

Nothing stops a reader as well as a good picture. And the picture caption, to be effective, has to do two things: Give the reader something about who or what’s in the picture, and make it so interesting that the reader thinks, “This story may be worth reading.”
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Working with Photographers

To write good picture captions, you first have to take the time to work with photographers to get good caption information. For many years, the New York Times had a photographer, George Tames, in its Washington bureau. The editors in the bureau discovered that George came back not only with good pictures but also with personal detail that often was better than the reporter had.

In getting the picture, George would try to loosen up the subject by talking about family, hobbies, anything they might have in common. The subject didn’t feel interviewed—it was just friendly talk. And the Times’ editors learned to debrief George when he came back with his pictures.

It takes time, effort, and cooperation to connect the caption writer with the photographer and to encourage photographers to do more than just take the picture. A lot of captions get written that simply pick up details from the story. That’s okay—it’s better than a dry description of what’s in the picture. But the most effective captions have the caption writer and photographer working together to make the picture and caption as interesting as possible.
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Is the Layout the Problem?

The second challenge for editors is working with the art department to get space for good picture captions. At the Washingtonian, captions are normally written after the editor and art director have picked the photos and a designer has done a tentative layout.

Layouts often get done with space for only a short caption. Sometimes three or four pictures are grouped together and the editor is asked to write one caption for those pictures.

I once asked one of our designers, a man who has worked at Los Angeles magazine and other top publications, what he thought about when he was putting captions into a layout. He said: “Captions should be short, concise and small so they don’t distract from the visual experience. Grouping captions together allows for a cleaner look and also ensures more control of the visual experience. It boils down to the hierarchy of elements on the page. Photo captions live just above credits in most cases, so they need to be a subtle presence. There’s no need for a photo caption to be jumping off the page and slapping the reader in the face.”

An editor’s job is to connect with the reader and as an editor I thought that attitude toward picture captions couldn’t be more wrong. But that “subtle presence” attitude toward captions seems increasingly the norm. You see that let’s-make-the-caption-short-and-hard-to-read approach in many smaller magazines, and even in bigger magazines such as Sports Illustrated.
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Learning to Make Art Directors Listen

It took me several years as an editor to begin to understand how important good art direction is to bringing in readers and keeping them. At first I handed the art director the story and let the designers design, figuring they knew best. What I became convinced of was that too many designers don’t really read and think about the story they’re laying out, and they’re more interested in what other designers think of their work than what the editor or the reader thinks.

In the early days, when I suggested changes that I thought helped the reader, I’d get resistance—it’s not the way we do it. After maybe a year of that, I figured it out: They’ll listen if you get control of their budget. The publisher agreed to let me manage both editorial and art—the hiring, the promoting, the raises.

Edit and art then worked together to try to get better photography, to write and display better heads, decks, and pull quotes, and most important to run bigger pictures with better captions. There was a lot of back and forth: A designer might ask for a two-line caption and editors didn’t feel we had to comply. We tried to write the most interesting caption we could. What’s in the picture, how does it fit into the story?

Sometimes the designer wanted one ganged caption for two, three, or four pictures. Again the editors often wrote separate captions, going with the reader, not the designer. We almost went for clarity, for making it easy for the reader.
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In Defense of Art Directors

It should also be said that a lot of let’s-get-it-out-fast design is caused by writers and editors not meeting deadlines. At the Washingtonian, it was a constant battle to get stories written and edited by our deadlines, and when edit was late, designers had less time to do good work and they didn’t want to hear from editors that we didn’t like that picture or we needed more space for this caption.

A constant battle on deadlines? The outside writers weren’t the problem—if we told them the deadline was X, they almost always delivered on time. But staff writers discovered that they could turn in a story late and still get it into the magazine. Writers and deadlines—lots of funny and sad stories there.

But we never lost sight of the goal: Give the reader the most interesting stories, photos, heads, decks, pull quotes, and captions we could. Like a lot of an editor’s job, it meant getting everyone to work together toward the best possible writing, editing, and design. For much of journalism, like a lot of life, God is in the details.

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