We influencers are all familiar with the feeling.
We painstakingly plan out the perfect photo shoot outfit and props, wake up at the crack of dawn for the best light and the least crowds, shoot about 500 pictures to (maybe) end up with two acceptable shots, spend countless hours editing in Lightroom, log into Instagram, hit the little plus button, and prepare for launch.
And then, the panic sets in. It’s time to write the caption.
What is there to say that hasn’t already been said? Should you be witty? Stoic? Mysterious? Controversial? You wrack your brain, hoping something will just magically come to you.
Of course it doesn’t, so in desperation, you google a random quote, or, better yet, ask your followers to come up with something for you.
I’ll never understand how it is that we invest so much time into everything else about our Instagram posts, but when it comes to writing the caption, most of us just slap something together last minute. It’s totally bananas.
And, if you expect to stand out on this (already over-saturated) platform, it needs to change.
Before we delve into the logistics of creating Ernest Hemingway-level Instagram captions, I need to drop an important truth first. It might not be easy to hear, but it’s necessary to fully absorb before you can expect to write stellar captions.
No one cares about your self-serving posts.
Sure, your family and friends might enjoy seeing pictures of your dog or your latest haircut, but outside of those who know and love you, no one will care unless you give them a reason to.
People stick around because you provide them with something of value, whether it’s inspiring imagery, thought-provoking captions, hilarious video stories, or some other unique reason.
To provide this value consistently, your captions need to do (at least) one of these three things: inspire, educate, or entertain. And if you can manage all three, well, you’ve hit the Instagram trifecta.
Did you ever read an Instagram caption that made you go: “Wow! I totally can get out there and crush it like him/her?!” One that picked you up after a long, dreary week and gave you a glimmer of hope that perhaps you wouldn’t actually die at your desk job after thirty miserable years of scrutinizing mind-numbing Excel spreadsheets?
The inspirational caption is the gold standard on Instagram. It’s difficult to achieve, but once you nail it, they will come – in hoardes.
Typically, an inspirational caption will include some element of vulnerability on the writer’s part, such as a deeply personal confession. It might be about the underdog who made the most of a bad situation or an uncommon action that challenged the status quo.
If you’re at a loss on how to achieve this, start digging around and finding the captions that inspire you. What in the language set something in motion for you?
Soak up your findings like a plant and then sow the seeds in your own inspirational garden.
Educating your followers with insightful captions is a great way to stand out amongst the sea of emojis and recycled quotes. That said, you don’t want to regurgitate the latest Wikipedia article and sound like a dry book report, either.
One of the most effective ways to educate your audience is by providing personal and insightful experience that your followers wouldn’t necessarily be able to find with a Google search.
For example, let’s say you were just vacationing in Santorini for the first time and you went to watch the famous sunset from Oia. You ventured out with little to no expectation of crowds, but quickly learned that Oia became a tourist hotspot during that time.
When you post that beautiful sunset shot to the gram, why not include an insightful caption? You could share the best time to arrive to guarantee a good view, the ideal vantage point to watch it from, and the best route to navigate back to your hotel afterwards.
Your followers would not only enjoy the photo, but they’d also gain helpful information that they could use to inform their own travels.
Are you charismatic? Possess a flair for the dramatic? Have a quirky sense of humor? Use your shining personality to entertain your audience through your captions. Share a humorous anecdote, tell a joke, juxtapose a beautiful photo with a raw, behind-the-scenes reveal.
There are certain accounts I follow purely for the entertainment value, such as feature account @travel.puns. I follow them because – and only because – they make me laugh.
Do they have beautiful pictures? Sure.
Do I care? Not especially.
There are plenty of beautiful feature accounts that I don’t follow because there’s nothing particularly unique about them. If I’m looking at lovely pictures on one, I may as well be looking at equally attractive snaps on another.
I’m after that extra element, that unique flair. And that’s what your goal should be when writing.
Many Instagrammers will fall into the trap of thinking that their photos are good enough to stand alone without a caption. While this may hold true for some truly exceptional drone shots, for example, it’s dangerous to rely on photography alone to carry you through on this platform. Yes, Instagram is largely about beautiful photos, but pictures alone are not enough.
Your followers want to know you, the wizard behind the curtain, not just see images. They want to see the personality behind a photo, the human element that can only be uniquely yours. People follow other people for their insight, their humor, their inspiring words, their interesting take on the world at large.
For example, let’s say you want to give your followers a better sense of what Bali is like. While they could find plenty of pictures and information through a simple Google search, they hit that follow button for something deeper.
Perhaps you share the best vegan drink you ordered at your favorite off-the-beaten path café, the embarrassing experience you had at Ubud Monkey Forest, or how the incessant mosquitos in the rice terraces during your morning photo shoot taught you an important lesson about fortitude.
A friend of mine once shared a photo of some moderately interesting architecture that delivered poor results. The caption was brief and non-memorable. She couldn’t understand why the picture got so little attention and why no one seemed to appreciate its beauty.
When I asked her to describe what she was feeling when she took the picture, she came alive, describing this whole backstory that I never would have gotten from the photo alone. Had she infused that into the post – the storyline, the enthusiasm, the motivation for snapping the shot – the post probably would have performed a lot better.
Don’t get lazy and don’t be so overconfident that you slap pictures onto your page without any thought as to the words behind them. While this may get you by for a while, it’s not particularly sustainable long-term.
Hook people in, keep them interested, and make them miss you on social media detox days.
Many people struggle with Instagram captions because they have this idea that the words have to literally match the picture: “Here I am, drinking coffee at my favorite café.” What a snoozefest. Avoid the obvious, robotic retelling of the photo itself and provide value.
Maybe the café reminds you of something nostalgic from childhood that your audience may also remember fondly. Maybe you use the post to share some lesser known facts about the coffee industry. Maybe your caption has nothing whatsoever to do with coffee, but you use the photo as a vehicle to talk about eating confidently in public while traveling solo.
Get a little creative. Dig deeper. What would you be interested in knowing about the photo that wasn’t already immediately obvious?
In addition to inspiring/entertaining/educating/telling your followers a story, you always want to involve your audience in your captions.
1) It will demonstrate that you value their opinions
2) Your posts will get better engagement
One of the best (and perhaps easiest) ways to do this is by posing a question at the end of your caption. Let’s say you’re talking about your favorite island. Why not ask your followers to share their favorite as well?
You can even take this one step further by polling your audience to get their opinion on something. Perhaps you ask them to help you choose your next outfit for a photoshoot. Your followers will enjoy sharing their opinions and you’ll enjoy better engagement by listening to their preferences.
For the love of all that is holy, unless you’re a tween, do not write captions in pure emojis. Just don’t do it. Asking your followers to respond with specific emojis is one thing – it’s actually a great way to see if people are actually reading your captions – but don’t for a second think that some winky faces, unicorns, and cartoon monkeys are going to carry you through to stardom.
And while we’re on the topic of what not to do, can we finally put the whole quote thing to rest? I don’t mind seeing an inspiring quote every now and then, but when I scroll through the platform and everyone is quoting the same line over and over, it starts to get old. If I have to see “Paris is always a good idea” one more time, I think I’ll just deactivate my account.
Now if you can use a quote to tell an original story, share an interesting anecdote, or call it out for being cliché, by all means, quote away.
Not everyone is a gifted writer and no one is going to win any prestigious awards from their Instagram captions. But at the bare minimum, many of us could afford to put a little more effort into what we’re writing.
That said, I realize it’s not often we’re struck with Shakespearian-level wisdom each time we sit down to post.
So, to make all of your lives easier and get you past the crippling writer’s block, I’ve come up with nine go-to writing prompts to inspire your best Instagram captions. You can download them here for free.
So what are you waiting for? Get these writing prompts and get on with creating some stellar captions. Your followers will thank you!
Did you find these tips useful? Don’t forget to pin this post to your boards!