Common Sense Journalism


Shortcuts to good cutlines

by Doug Fisher

No. 12 for January 2003


Who are the most widely read writers in the newspaper?

Copy editors, because they write the headlines and cutlines – and nothing takes the shine off a good picture like a tarnished cutline.

Good cutlines are important when the image may be arresting, but the meaning isn’t immediately clear. They are critical for when the image is neither arresting, nor the context clear.

And cutline mistakes can be as noticeable as those in a 60-point headline.

Subject-verb-object remains the strongest form for most cutlines. We generally use historical present tense to maintain the sense of immediacy inherent in the picture, even if it is years old. (Example: President Nixon flashes the victory sign as he leaves the White House for the final time in August 1974.)

The editor’s challenge is to avoid completely restating the picture; falling into a cliche, even though the picture itself might be a cliche (the infamous grip-and-grin shot); and suffering writer’s block when the picture seems to say it all.

One idea is to try approaching every picture as though you were pulling it out of your wallet or purse to show a friend. Think how you show off pictures of your children (or dog, cat or car): “Here’s Jimmy playing with his friend Billy at the beach. That’s Jimmy on the right with the beach ball. Boy, it was hot.”

That easily translates to: Jimmy Smith, with a beach ball, plays with his friend Billy Jones at Orchard Beach. But why do we care about Billy and Jimmy? Jimmy Smith, with a beach ball, plays with his friend Billy Jones at Orchard Beach on Tuesday. Thousands of people headed to area beaches as temperatures climbed into the upper 90s. (We can shift to past tense once we have established the historical present.)

Here are some other hints:

– Know the placement and cropping, or write a more general line. This cutline, Flames rise from the cars of Elie Hobeika and his bodyguard in Hasmeih, Lebanon, failed when the picture was cropped to leave one flaming car and the hint of a second column of black smoke in the upper right corner. Better: Wreckage burns after an attack on Elie Hobeika and his bodyguard in Hasmeih, Lebanon.

-- Write to the photo’s focus point. It was fortunate Jimmy had the beach ball because that gave us a focus. Cutlines too often robotically follow the left-to-right regimen: Billy Smith, left; Jimmy Jones, pointing; and Bobby Wilson, right, watch the Christmas parade Saturday. Instead, try this: Jimmy Jones points to the passing Christmas parade Saturday with friends Billy Smith, left, and Bobby Wilson, right.

– The focus point might not be what you want to point out. One recent photo talked about a building under construction “at top.” But a bigger building, also in the top half, dwarfed the construction site. The reader needed to be directed specifically to “in the upper right corner.”

– With a grip-and-grin, try something different than “A presents B with a check for such-and-such.” Passing the check becomes the focal point, so why not write: A $500 check that Chamber of Commerce President Judy Smith, left, hands to Kiwanis Club President John Howard will provide toys for needy children. Nothing says we always must lead with boring people. And we don’t need John Howard, “right,”  because with two people, if we know one, we know the other. Another variation, if you’re lucky: Chuckles the Clown accepts a $500 check from Chamber of Commerce President Judy Smith for toys for needy children. Chuckles is the obvious focus here; use him to your advantage.

– Check the details. Photographers are notoriously bad name spellers. That airplane was sitting on a taxiway, not the runway. That basketball player isn’t from Maryland, but from Indiana. Etc. And don’t assume something just because it looks like it in the picture. Pallbearers in a recent photo were identified as Air Force officers, possibly because of the fuzzy stripes on their arms. But officers don’t serve as pallbearers. Those were enlisted personnel.

– Don’t say “is pictured” or “is shown.” Readers are looking at the photo.

– Don’t describe someone as glum, happy, frustrated or a dozen other adjectives that lead the reader to wonder how you know that. If the photo shows it, let the photo speak for itself. If not, let it be.

– Don’t get cute unless the photo warrants it, and if you are being cute, understatement often is best

– Use correct grammar: Snakehead fish has been causing concern in the U.S. would have been improved by adding “the” or changing the verb to “have.” And watch double meanings: Police clear wreckage from Tuesday’s accident on U.S. 76 that they say began with a trucker hauling chickens driving on the wrong side of the highway. Driving chickens are clearly a hazard, especially in the wrong lane.

– Be careful with archives: Make sure that photo of Jimmy Jones is the one you want, not the other Jimmy Jones who might well sue you for the wrong identification. Make sure you compare the photo and story. A cutline for an almost year-old photo had actor Robert Blake holding his “11-month-old daughter” at the funeral of her mother. The story said Blake was living “with his 3-year-old daughter.” One of those ages clearly is wrong.

– Try to avoid “widows” of a few words that drop to a separate line. Like a good headline, a squared cutline looks better in most cases. You usually can find a couple of words to delete or rewrite.

Above all, respect the readers. Don’t waste their time with the obvious. Write strong cutlines that enhance their understanding.

Doug Fisher, a former AP news editor, teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina and can be reached at or 803-777-3315.

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