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3 Ways Picture Captions Can Help Your Freelance Writing

captionsHave you ever used the captions on photos to spark your writing? It doesn’t matter if you write them yourself or just read the ones others have written, they often provide just the seeds you need to write something.

Well done picture captions work to communicate in words what the picture is showing. Often it’s straight forward, like “The Edwards family arrive in town for 108 birthday party of Sam Edwards.” Sometimes the bring clarity to what’s happening in a photo, perhaps like “Although rare this time of year, the grey heron is often seen at the lake – usually in summer.”

Pictures can help you clarify a story

Complex ideas sometimes need illustrations or other form of graphic art. Couple a good illustration with a caption that helps the graphic explain what’s going on can make a story dynamite. Although we tend to think of science and engineering with this type of example, we don’t have to look far in the news to make the point. The right photo with the right caption can be extremely powerful.

Take a moment  to look at the image here and imagine what sort of caption it might need.


Writing a caption can spark your story

Years ago I was helping teach a high school writing class. For some reason I was given the students the real teacher had mostly given up on. One boy was obviously plenty smart, but had a terrible time getting anything down on paper. I asked him what he liked to do. Like most kids he had varied interests, that included photography. I asked him if he could make pictures in his head.

“Of course,” he said so disdainfully I realized he assumed everyone could do this.

My next question was one of those surprising strokes of genius we all have once in a while. “Can you imagine pictures about the topic you’re having trouble writing about,” I asked.

He looked at me strangely, but I could see him thinking such a new thought through. He nodded.

“Great! Your homework tonight is to think of eight pictures that you would take about this topic. Put them in order, then write captions for each.”

The next morning he brought in  the captions, all neatly lined up in the order he had chosen on a single piece of paper. It didn’t take much to show him how to connect those with short transitions, words, and punctuation. He went from a D student to a B student almost overnight. I’m not sure which one of us was more delighted.

Captions can be the story

Sometimes photo captions are the whole article, like a cut-line I once wrote for the Idyllwild Town Crier about standing an egg on end during summer solstice – yes, I was able to make it work and no, this was before the net. The paper archives begin in the early 2000s. The picture I took of the egg standing on end and it’s rather long caption was right in the middle of the front page.

Have you tried working with captions to get at your written story? Tell us about it in comments.

Write well and often,





{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Thanks so much for this! I especially loved the story about the boy, the potential photos, and the captions. I’m really going to mull that idea over as I work on getting my blog posts going more regularly for my editing/writing business.

  • Good ideas! Captions are the 3rd most read part of any article (after headlines and subheads). Can really draw people into your story.

    • Morgan, where did you get that statistic… I’d like to read more about captions.

      • Not sure! Read it in a book somewhere and it stuck. David Ogilvy talks about captions some in On Advertising. His argument is that 5x as many people read the headline as read the body copy, and 2x as many read the captions as read the body copy. When you’re scanning, it’s one of the easiest things on the page to find.

        • Thanks Morgan, sounds about right and Oglivy is sure an authority on advertising… may have to rethink captions on my site.

  • Hi Anne,
    What a great piece of information.
    Very nicely and briefly explained!
    I have learned a lot of new things from your post.
    Really Appreciate your effort.

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