How the reader reads heads, drop heads and cutlines

Imagine that three readers sit down together. Each one looks at the same newspaper page. Each one reads only one of three elements: the head, the drop head or the cutline, but only one of the three.

Then they discuss what they have read and, by consensus, come up with a summary of what the story is about.

 Is that how it happens?

 Then why do we write them that way?

 (Why do we insult the reader's intelligence and waste the reader's time by repeating the same information or stating the obvious?)

 In fact, the same reader reads them all in quick succession. Usually, it goes like this:

 Reader spots the photo, headline or both.

 Reader looks at the photo, glances at the cutline, then moves to the head.

Wonders: What is this story about?

 The head answers that question.

 Reader moves on to the drop head in search of a little more information before committing to reading the story.

 Reader is interested in the drop head if it offers fresh information, more detail, if it expands on but does not repeat what the reader has just learned from the photo and head.

 Stop here. Does the reader have questions? What are they? Answer them.

 Reader returns now to cutline, wanting more than ever to expand on what information he or she has learned so far. What useful, helpful information awaits?

 Why do we offer the reader cutlines?

 What's the point?
 What do we hope to accomplish?
 What must a good cutline do to do its job?
 What gets in the way of that?
 What makes it work especially well?
 Write a good cutline:

 Look at the photo. Carefully. Never write without it. See what the reader sees.
 Know what the story is about and what connection this person or activity has with the story.
 Answer the reader's questions. ID and locate, if that's important.
 Offer new information that explains, that adds.
 Never repeat.

1. Biggest problem: insulting the reader's intelligence. Stating the obvious. Telling what I already know, can see or don't care about. (What day this is. That he is sitting, is on the left, is shaking hands or pointing a gun.)

2. Second biggest: Leaving the reader confused. I don't know enough. This happens much less, but search the headlines for examples of "Everybody knows THAT!" assumptions.

Somewhere, there's a happy medium.

 Reader reads cutline.
 Cutline states the obvious.
 Reader is frustrated.

3. Search the copy for clues. What is news here? What is interesting? What is the reader likely to be interested in, care about, wonder about, find fascinating or even mildly interesting?

4. Connect the picture to the story and to what interests the reader. What does this person, place, thing or action have to do with the story? With the reader? Find it. Seize it, fetch it for the reader. Put it right there in the front row, the first sentence. Reader thanks you.

4. Marry it to the headline(s). Use the cutline to blend with head content, add detail, focus on what information the photo specifically adds to the package. But not repeat what the reader already knows.


1. Use cutlines to inform, not to repeat or state obvious information.

2. Cutlines should supplement the headlines, not restate them.

3. Paired or group cutlines should provide different information and not repeat each other or the headline.

4. Use the time element only when necessary. Move it as far away as possible from the present-tense verb describing the action.

5. Use locators only when necessary. Don't repeat locations unnecessarily.

6.  Use a cutline to link its action or actors to the story.