Thursday, July 13, 2006

Don't bogart that weekday

George Boozer smokes Monday outside Adriana’s Cafe & Gelateria in Five Points.

Time again for the cutline sermon. The real estate under photos is valuable stuff. If you just sit there and type in stuff that came with the photo, the odds are good you're wasting it.

Granted, you'd have to be more than a bit of an annoying pedant to insist that "Monday" was legally, definitively, invariably the object of "smokes" in the example above (though as noted here, we're all likely to stumble just for a moment on it). But since it accompanies a picture of a guy smoking, you're within bounds to ask not only why the cutline begins by telling me that someone's smoking but why the date is important. You can make a bit of headway with the succeeding sentence:

Boozer, 61, says he's been smoking since he was 12 but would abide by whatever smoking rules the city imposes.

... but you're not done yet (what's the logic behind the "but" clause -- do people who started smoking at age 12 usually get to defy city ordinances?). Time to push the photo desk for some more information. What's this place we're looking at? Is it nonsmoking inside? The closer you can get to saying why you're seeing an image, the closer you are to a good cutline.

Asking about the date is a good thing. If the precise date doesn't bear on why the photo's in the paper, consider leaving out the date. Another step is to get rid of empty verbs that repeat the action from the frame:

Debbie Sheals and Carrie Gartner stand outside Tellers Gallery and Bar where the concrete canopies along Broadway are being removed.

If you think you've seen it before, you have:
Irv Cockriel stands before his sunflowers, which are more than 13 feet tall, Sunday.

Charles Estill stands in Bethel Cemetery, where many of his relatives are buried, for the first time this year on Wednesday.

Fatten the cutline with details from the text: Estill says efforts to tend the cemetery used to be better organized. Slip into the past tense if it helps: This visit was his first to the cemetery this year. Cockriel started planting sunflowers 15 years ago.

Don't tell readers what they can see, which is people standing. Tell then what they can't see -- particularly, which of two named (and local, and identifiable in the photo) people is which. Don't feel obliged to drown readers in details:
A South Korea student passes a mock North Korean Scud-B missile, second from the right, and other South Korean missiles outside the Korea War Memorial Museum in Seoul on Sunday.

As fate would have it, this is in the same issue as the local preservationists standing at the restaurant and the retired prof standing before his flowers.

The Forbidden Verbs, of course, are in a category by themselves. Having two appear in the same package should make clear why they're forbidden (though, come to think of it, so would paying attention in class):

Italian fans celebrate in Rome’s ancient Circus Maximus after watching Italy defeat France.

From left, Italy’s Simone Perrotta, Marco Materazzi, Gianluca Zambrotta and Francesco Totti celebrate Materazzi’s goal.

To repeat: Never, never, never use any tense of the verb "celebrate" in any cutline. Some Monday-smoking copy chief is likely to "react" by belaboring you about the ears with a pica pole.

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