I know that writing table and figure captions seems like one of those little tasks that should be way down on the list with checking for extra spaces and getting your e-mail address right. But the truth is, many magazine and book readers flip through and read the captions and look at the pictures before making a buying decision. Do you really want to just toss off any old thing if it makes a difference in your royalty check?
I didnít think so.
First, the basics. Captions are not titles; only the first word and proper nouns get capitalized. If the publisher wants complete sentences, be sure to provide them, and to provide the appropriate punctuation at the end. If the publisher doesnít want complete sentences or doesnít care, find out if they want a period at the end regardless. Some of them do, even though itís not strictly appropriate. All the publisherís rules of bolding, capitalization, abbreviation, and quotation mark usage are in effect for captions. There are almost always figure and table numbers that precede your caption, and youíll want to comply with bolding and punctuation requirements there, too. Make a trip through your document when youíve finished verifying that youíve numbered sequentially and that there is a callout in text for the number of every caption.
Now itís time to talk about content. Whether youíre writing a book or a magazine article for print or the Internet, try to think of your captions as rest stops along a journey. To the reader who settles in to read your text, captions that fit into the global picture, like your headings and subheadings, will be appreciated, even if only subliminally. If your images tell the same story visually that your text tells verbally, youíve done a great job.
But donít take me literally and overpopulate your text with images. Most text requires some sort of interruption about every page and a half. Sometimes it could be a picture, other times a table, and sometimes it might even be a graph or chart. If your text is full of code, youíll want something that doesnít read horizontally, just to allow your readers to have a resting place. Try to think of figures and captions as enhancements to the text, not a replacement or a reiteration.
There are two schools of thought about whether caption content should state the obvious. The school of traditional journalism prefers that you not state the obvious nor be unnecessarily oblique:
Microsoft released new versions of these products.
This is cool.
The school of journalistic adaptation encourages you to explain the image:
You can plot people in three purple layers by checking the appropriate check boxes in the Layers dialog box.
Clicking ďProcessĒ allows the activation system to collect suitable data and proceed.
Okay, so those were a little dull. But imagine that youíre that shopper, flipping through to make a purchasing decision. Do these captions intrigue you enough that you might just want to read the surrounding text?
Use captions and their figures to illustrate complex thoughts that you have already expressed in text. An easy way to make sure that youíre really playing on your own team is to quote yourself. Thatís right. Take text straight out of the text and apply it to the caption. You might adapt it a little once itís on its own, but itís also okay if itís verbatim.