Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Cardinal Rule of Captions

The designers are nearly finished with Geoff's book. Galley proofs should be ready for us soon!

A few little fires still need our attention, however. Most of them have to do with photo captions. The publisher has asked us for more specifics – more details – in the text of approximately ten captions.

Of course we’re happy to oblige. But the situation started me thinking about various approaches to photo captions, and ways to make the most of the words that accompany the pictures.

When it comes to captioning, only one rule is carved in stone: Every photo needs a caption.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but books are worlds where words reign supreme. A wordless picture lacks a tether to the text. It floats ineffectively on the page and raises more questions than it answers.

It is true that most people will look at the illustrations before they examine the text. (If you don’t believe me, visit a bookstore for an hour or so and observe. Or – better yet – sit at a booksigning and watch people peruse the pages you wrote. Flip, flip, flip, flip… “Oh, that’s a cool shot!” Flip, flip, flip… It’s humbling in the extreme.)

Still, when the reader actually reads the text, he or she needs to be able to put the photos in context with the words that are on the page.

Because of layout and design considerations, photos don’t always appear in the midst of the relevant words. The pertinent illustration may appear anywhere on the page or even on an adjacent page. That is why every illustration that merits inclusion in the manuscript deserves, at the very least, a name.

Tune in tomorrow for some suggestions for constructing killer captions…