Teaching Yearbook: Caption Writing Basics

Teaching Yearbook: Caption Writing Basics
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When I first became a yearbook adviser, my only experience in the field was the fact that I had been a member of my high school’s yearbook staff for one year. I struggled through that first year of advising, letting the students with experience take the lead in most of our classroom operations. It was a major growing year for me, though, and I learned a lot which I later applied to subsequent years of advising that same yearbook staff.

If you’re a new yearbook adviser, chances are your situation is similar to my first-year experience. Never fear: it does get easier. I got a lot of help from some very talented students, a former yearbook adviser who acted as my mentor, and an awesome representative from our publishing company. I also attended a yearbook adviser camp/workshop that gave me a TON of new ideas and contacts. So now, I pass all of that wisdom along to you.

Sample Photo

Caption Writing 101

If you’re going to teach your students how to write good captions, you have to first understand what a “good caption” looks like. Here are the basics of yearbook caption-writing.

1. Every caption needs to start with a lead-in phrase. This is your mini-headline for your caption; it is designed to grab a Joe Yearbook Reader’s attention and let him understand what’s going on in the photo in very brief detail. Set off your lead-in from the rest of your caption by putting it in bold, italics, or both.

2. After the lead-in, your caption needs to have one present-tense sentence describing the action in the photo. This is the sentence that captures that photo’s moment in time.

3. Every subsequent sentence (2-3) in your caption should be in past-tense. The reason for this is that the action in the photo has already become a thing of the past once your readers get their yearbook. You write about that action in the proper tense to maintain consistency.

4. Every caption should do a few key things:

- Describe the action taking place in the photo.

- Identify every person in the photo by name and grade, up to 5 people.

- Go beyond the photo by providing additional details about the event or program the photo highlights.

Sample Caption

Let’s review: Now you know what a caption looks like. You know the basic steps involved in creating a quality caption for your yearbook readers. You have also had time to look at the sample photo on page 1: the basic story behind it is that it’s a photo of my daughter in her preschool program, which was part of a high school Child Development class. Isn’t she cute?

Now let’s put it all together. Start with the lead-in, move on to one present-tense sentence, and round it out with a few past-tense sentences. Identify the people in the photo and go beyond the obvious action in the photo to relate a larger story.

Using the sample photo from the beginning of the article and the tips on page 1, I wrote a sample caption:

  • Little Fire Chief. In a hands-on learning experience, preschool student Jillian Cook and Child Development Sophomore student Jane Smith explore the local fire engine. During Fire Safety Week, local firefighters visited the Lil' Chiefs preschool to teach the preschool students about fire safety issues. Cook and the rest of her classmates got to try on firefighter uniforms, hear the sirens, and discuss plans for evacuating their houses in case of an emergency. The Lil' Chiefs preschool hosted educational events like this throughout the year for its young charges, under the supervision of Early Childhood teacher Mrs. Jill Hill and her Child Development students.

Notice that it took some time to write one full caption. Captions are mini-stories in and of themselves, and they should always be carefully crafted. When your readers flip to a yearbook page, their eyes will be drawn to the photos before anything else. (They want to see who they know on the page and get an idea for the page’s content without having to commit to any heavy reading at first.) If your captions are interesting enough, they will continue to the rest of the page and read your copy and sidebar information as well. If your captions are boring, however, they will continue to flip to other pages in the book.

Teaching Caption Writing

When you teach caption writing, you need to make sure that your students understand all of the information described in the “Caption Writing 101” section of this article. When I teach yearbook, I try to have my students keep a binder full of useful information on all the different topics associated with creating a yearbook (writing, photography, layout/design, etc.). So I would always start by giving them notes over this information and having them put those notes away to use as a reference later. I would remind them, too, that everyone will be called upon to do every task at some point; just because you’re a designer doesn’t mean I won’t ever need you to write a caption if we’re in deadline crunch mode. So everyone needs to learn every skill, even if they only practice certain skills regularly.

After you’ve covered the basics, the best way to teach caption writing is through practice, practice, practice. Here are a few suggestions for how to do that:

1. Use Your Resources. My yearbook classroom always became a storage unit for old yearbook junk. Some of it I threw away without remorse, but I kept a few other things in case we ever needed them or because I felt too guilty to throw away school history. Filed under that second category was a photo archive (I make it sound fancy - truly, it was a series of boxes full of photos that had been used in past yearbooks and returned by the publisher once the yearbook was completed). Now, most yearbooks are done completely digitally, so photos are scanned or taken digitally and uploaded online. In the not-too-distant past, however, yearbook students became handy with grease pencils as they hand-cropped photo prints and mailed them to the publisher along with their hand-drawn layout designs. These are the photos that became our “archives” once we got them back.

I used these photos to teach caption-writing. I would ask students to go to the box and pull out five photos or so. Then they would return to their seats and practice writing captions. It didn’t matter if they could identify the people in the pictures any more; I told them to make up names, grades, and even the events of the photos if they didn’t know. The point of this activity was that they got to practice with actual yearbook photos. I had every student write their five captions and then turn in their photos and captions to their editors for assessment. We could use one box of photos and practice this skill several times, with students choosing different photos each time.

2. Crazy Captions. In order to mix things up a little bit, sometimes I brought in fun photos for caption practice. I used photos I found online or cut out of magazines (such as The National Enquirer) and asked students to write captions about alien marriages and Big Foot Babies. Sure, it wouldn’t be anything we could use in our yearbook, but variety is the spice of life. Plus, writing captions in proper formats for crazy photos stretches a student’s creative limits, which is always a good thing in a yearbook class.

3. The Real Deal. Once your students have had a chance to practice on sample photos, it’s time to put them to work. Once your photography staff has a collection of photos ready to go and your design staff has placed them on the pages, it’s time for your writers to flex their caption-writing muscles. Under the supervision of a meticulous and skilled editorial staff, your writers can get to work writing captions for actual yearbook spreads. If they have to re-do them, so be it. At least you’re making progress toward your publication date.

This post is part of the series: Teaching Yearbook

Find ideas and inspiration for teaching yearbook students. Explore yearbook skills, lesson plans, and creative ideas for managing a yearbook staff and producing a publication you’ll be proud to call your own.

  1. Teaching Yearbook Theme Development
  2. Teaching Yearbook: Staff Organization
  3. Yearbook Tips: Caption Writing Lesson Plan
  4. Managing a High School Yearbook Staff: Photographers