Professional Voice Over Script Writing


Writing a script for a voice actor?

Fact: A smooth recording session starts with a well-written script. Conversely, a poorly written or badly formatted script causes problems -- problems that adversely affect the project’s budget, create longer session times, increase tension in the actor’s delivery, and produce an outcome that just sounds less professional.

Good news! There is a LOT that the copywriter can do beforehand to avoid or minimize a wide range of potential problems.

In this article, we'll divide copywriting technique into two areas: (a) writing and editing, and (b) formatting.

Write like people speak

As every writer knows, there are many possible writing styles, depending on the material, audience, etc. There are also many speaking styles, depending on the speaker's background, audience, situation, etc. But in general, we speak MUCH more informally than writers often write -- even more informally than many advertising copywriters write. You may find that it helps to imagine you're talking to someone, rather than writing. You will naturally use smaller words, a more conversational tone, and shorter sentences. (And notice how we wrote "you're" instead of "you are"?) This may be helpful to you even in your printed work, since among the general population, people seem to be less patient these days with having to parse long, complicated sentences for meaning.

Shorten sentence length

Aim for short sentences that vary in length. This is closer to how we speak. To keep sentences on the shorter side: 1) keep to one thought per sentence; 2) delete any surplus verbiage; and 3) break sentences into two whenever possible. Pretend you're Hemingway.

Watch your transitions

Remember that, unlike readers, listeners can't go back and re-examine what has just been said. So it's super-important the listener be able to keep up with the train of thought. Sentence transition words (such as "Yet," "But," "However," "Therefore," and "Meanwhile") let listeners know that a change from the previous thought is coming. Use transitions as cues to help clarify your message.

And be sure to only use “sharp turn” transitions when separating statements which make sharp contrasts.

Here is poor use of a “sharp turn” transition:

“Member Card Services provides hundreds of benefits. But the best one is the daily special you’ll receive!”

In the above example, the transition “but” triggers the listener to assume that the following statement will be in contrast to the previous – probably a negative statement. But that is not the case. And it takes the mind a moment to catch up.

To demonstrate this, consider: If you were on a game show and were asked to complete the words after “But,” you would probably answer with a negative statement, such as,

“But you can’t get those benefits until you’ve been a member for a year.”

The solution? Use a different conjunction:

“Member Card Services provides hundreds of benefits. And the best one is the daily special you’ll receive!”

Now the listener is put in the correct mindset and expects a positive statement.

Another solution is to emphasize the contrasting words:

“Member Card Services provides hundreds of benefits. The best one is the daily special you’ll receive!”

OR lead the logic step by step:

“Member Card Services provides hundreds of benefits. And because you deserve more, the best one is the daily special you’ll receive!”

By the way, here’s appropriate usage of the transition “But.” The conjoined clauses are sharp contrasts:

“After 30 days, most charge card companies give you a warning. But at Diners Club, we give you another 30 days.”

Use silence effectively

Silence is your friend. Use it with purpose. It is to audio what whitespace is to visuals -- letting the "mind's eye" rest, or attracting attention. Silence is also another way to help listeners process the verbal content. And if there is video, it lets them take in what’s on the screen.

To work brief pauses into your script, simply indicate where the talent should stop for a moment (in performing parlance, a "beat"). The clearest indicator is probably the ellipsis (…), but commas and other punctuation marks also suggest pauses.

Translate spoken pauses into written punctuation

For a voice actor to sound natural when reading your words, insert appropriate punctuation marks in the script, where you would pause if speaking. Do this even if not always grammatically correct. But also, don't overdo it or you’ll end up with a choppy delivery. If a long, noticeable pause is desired, you can even type: (pause).

Use momentary pauses effectively

Pauses give you time to add elements for screen builds -- typically when a different visual image is shown for each item. Specifically, when you list items in the script, separate each item with a comma. Or, if an item contains commas, use semicolons as separators. Remember to include a comma between the last two items in a series (that is, before the "and" or "but"). Otherwise, the voice actor may read the last two items as one string of words.

This runs counter to the trend in modern punctuation, but so be it. Imagine this commercial, in which there are four different close-up images with a 2-second visual image for each item:

Welcome to CRUNCH Fitness! Change your body in 10 minutes? It is possible. PICK YOUR SPOT PILATES targets your favorite body parts to train: arms, belly, butt and thighs, with three 10-minute workouts!

It’s grammatically acceptable to not have a comma after “butt.” However, without that comma, the voice actor would likely flow from “butt” directly into “and thighs” which would (A) not leave room for the imagery and/or (B) create extra work for the engineer to edit in a space –- and anyone who has edited knows how difficult it is to separate two words that flow together. It may be nearly impossible.

So if you want the voice actor to pause after “butt,” then put a comma there, like this:

Welcome to CRUNCH Fitness! Change your body in 10 minutes? It is possible. THE CRUNCH FITNESS PILATES VIDEO targets your favorite body parts to train: arms, belly, butt, and thighs, with three 10-minute workouts!

Also use punctuation to make long sentences more readable. It makes things much easier for the voice actor. For example, consider this sentence without punctuation:

“The copywriter should include pauses in the script because listeners need time to absorb the info and the announcer needs time to breathe.”

Simply adding a few marks makes the sentence easier to read on a short production schedule:

“The copywriter should include pauses in the script ... because listeners need time to absorb the info, and the announcer needs time to breathe.”

OR

“The copywriter should include pauses in the script because: listeners need time to absorb the info, and the announcer needs time to breathe.”

(Which is better? It may depend on the situation. Pausing before "because" is more natural in speaking, but if the two reasons will be bulleted on the screen, it makes sense to pause just before each (as in the second version).

Remember: While professional voice actors are experienced at extending their breath beyond what most of us do in normal conversation, if they need a place to breath, they'll find it. But it might not be where you'd prefer.

The rule of thumb is to pause between phrases, rarely within them. So if a sentence has lots of phrases, and if the sentence does not need to be read as one long string, then break it up with punctuation marks. Or write in sentence fragments. Which is how most people usually speak anyway.

Read the copy out loud.

That's the best way to spot spelling mistakes, missed words, extra words, and and tongue-twisters. (Ooops, did you catch that extra "and"? If not, you were likely reading to yourself. Go back and read aloud, and then you’ll catch the extra word.)

Also run your software's spell-checker. Misspellings that affect meaning or pronunciation can cost time and money in the studio. They're even more expensive if not discovered till later.

Another very important reason for reading out loud is to spot words that may not be heard correctly. For example, in everyday conversation, Americans barely pronounce the “T” in the word “can’t.” That's not a serious concern in conversation, because you'll quickly know if the other person heard you correctly. This is because the context of a natural conversation usually provides clues to your meaning. Furthermore, if you're conversing in person, your facial expression and body language also give important hints.

But in an audio recording, none of that is working for you. If it's a commercial, the context may be somewhat artificial, the time too brief, and the listener too inattentive. So if he or she doesn’t hear the “T” in "can't," the copy's meaning is completely reversed.

Imagine this commercial:

“Can('t) get a good night sleep? Then take Tylenol PM.”

If for some reason you absolutely must say "can't," direct the voice actor to be sure to pronounce the T distinctly. But a good audio copywriter tries to avoid this situation. There are many alternatives that -- depending on the context and available time -- don't have to sound artificial. People do still say "cannot," especially for emphasis. Or you can say:

"Having trouble getting..." or "Missing a..." or "Want a..." or "Need a..."

Actually, any important word can be problematic if it ends in a sound that the next word begins with. For example:

"What if you can totally sleep like a baby?"

That reads well here in print, but aloud, is it "can totally" or "can't totally"? The difference is slight. And once mixed with music or sound effects, there may be no difference at all.

Speaking of repeated consonants, let's turn to tongue twisters...

Until you read the copy aloud, you might be surprised at how many difficult phrases there are in ordinary copy. For example:

“This Sears sale starts Saturday at 7.”

Professional voice actors should be able to do this without much trouble. Even so, it sounds odd. What’s fine for print may be distracting or even grating in voice over.

Other reasons to read out loud:

Reading your script aloud will also help you...

  • Identify sentences that are too long to say comfortably in one breath
  • Identify sentences that are too long or convoluted to follow (good to avoid in any text)
  • Catch rhetoric that might be confusing
  • Keep to one thought per sentence
  • Discover redundancies
  • Realize if the draft is boring, or note where listener interest might lag

A further note about breathing -- professional voice actors are experienced at extending their breath beyond what most of us do in normal conversation. And if they need a place to breath, they'll find it. But it might not be where you'd prefer.

And even with voice training, at the end of a long, single-breath passage, the voice necessarily sounds physically different. In fact, Shakespeare wrote certain passages so as to discourage taking a breath, forcing the actor to sound almost on the verge of tears.

Just as good voice actors try to make things easy for you and your audio engineer, try to make it easy for your voice actor. In turn, making it easier for them also makes it easier on the audio engineer, giving you a better performance and saving you a bit of time in post production.

Read copy aloud to TIME it.

When writing the way people talk, also consider the pace at which people talk. We read aloud much more slowly than when we read silently, and people generally talk even more slowly when speaking to others.

So, when you're reading a script aloud to accurately judge its length, don't race through it. Go at the pace you want the voice actor to go. If possible, record yourself and listen back, or have an associate listen for pace.

Speaking of time, note that numbers take longer to say than words of similar length. Same for certain letter groups, such as “www.” Reading aloud will properly account for these.

Some writers save a few minutes by calculating four seconds per printed line of script as a rule of thumb. Don’t. Because this line...

“For more information, call 877-457-9777 or visit www.SpecialCruises.com for details.”

...takes longer than 4 seconds to say.

Even at a moderate pace, just because you CAN fit it all into 30 or 60 seconds, that doesn't mean you should. Pare your words, even your thoughts, so that every one of them works.

As a writer, you've probably heard the words attributed to various classic authors: "If I had had more time, this would have been shorter."

Ambiguous word meanings can confuse the voice actor and the listener

There are a surprising number of sound-alikes, look-alikes, and other "weird words" to trip us up. Here's a classic example from a live script (hopefully apocryphal):

"Attention sewers! Sears has a sale price on the machine of your dreams."

Listeners are unlikely to be dreaming of public sanitation equipment, but rushed voice actors may not catch it in time. Instead say (for example), "Do you sew?" With this addition, the correct meaning should be obvious.

But with homonyms like "polish," "aids," "bail/bale," and "bow" it might not be. Sometimes the voice actor won’t know how to pronounce a word until after they’ve finished speaking it. For example:

“If you read the fine-print, you will see the…”
“If you read the fine-print, you noticed the…”

Sure, the voice actor can go back and re-record if they mispronounced “read.” But listeners may hear the word incorrectly and they can’t go back and re-listen. Once they are confused, they stop listening.

Here's a link to broaden your vocabulary. Or rather, to narrow it.

http://grammar.about.com/od/fh/g/homonymterm.htm

Numbers can be homonyms, too.

Although numerals are usually faster to read, some numbers are better spelled out. For example, the numeral "1" (one) looks like the letter "I" or a lower-case "L." Also, if the number is to be emphasized, spelling it out gives you more options for indicating that.

And while you're at it, be sure the voice actor will know if the number is being emphasized because it is unusually large, or because it's unusually small -- it can make a difference in the way he or she reads the rest of the sentence.

Whatever the words, properly formatting them is also important. We'll deal with that next time.

Table of Contents

Presentation

Print With Black Ink On White Paper

If copied, the colored text might come out light gray, making it hard to read. For the same reason, don't rely on color for emphasis.

Make your copywriting relevant and easy to follow.

Voice work is about communication, and if it ain't on the page, even the best voice actor may not be able to help it. Given a good script to work with, qualified voice actors can almost always make it even better, without changing a word.

If sending the script electronically, send it as Word and PDF.

With a Word document, the producer or voice actor can re-format for maximum convenience and readability, and make any last minute changes. The PDF file will assure that all your font choices, formatting, etc. are seen as you intended them. The recipient should compare the two versions.

Also, if the voice actor is reading directly off of a monitor, the Word document enables him or her to mark up the script. A PDF file is more difficult to annotate.

Typography

Punctuation and Pausing

Experienced voice over actors will take your punctuation very literally. Conventional use of commas and other "pause" punctuation marks can have unintended consequences.

For example, if you want the voice actor to say

“January 12, 2012," then spell it out, rather than writing “01/12/12.”

Should you even use the conventional comma after "January 12"? Or in "Sammy Davis, Jr." Or in "Phoenix, Arizona"? Some people pause at them. The difference is usually trivial, but if you don’t want the voice actor to pause, then leave out the comma.

Also arguable is whether or not even to mention "2012." In print, what the heck, you might as well, it's relatively harmless. But in audio, it takes time, is distracting and is not conversational. Do the lawyers think the listener will reasonably think we mean 2013, or even every January?

Also, don't be shy about using punctuation marks to clarify meaning or improve readability, even if it is not technically correct. For example, "Whatever will be, will be" or "What is, is." (And note the difference between that and "Whatever 'is' is," or "Whatever is is."

Here are two more examples where pausing, or not pausing, changes the meaning:

However, they did it… the BMW is faster.
However they did it, the BMW is faster.

In Shakespeare's lines, performers and scholars have argued for centuries as to where to place pauses and emphasis. There is no hard-and-fast rule. But your project's schedule is probably somewhat shorter, so be as clear as you can in communicating with your performer.

Avoid symbols and abbreviations

What we said about spelling out dates also applies to abbreviations. Spell them out.

For example, "St." -- although talent can probably tell from context whether it means "street" or "saint," why take a chance? You can't necessarily foresee every possible consequence. For example, you may know that "Fairfield Ct" means "court," but it might not occur to you that the voice actor sees it as "Connecticut." Symbols are another form of potentially confusing abbreviation. Examples:

  • Instead of “Press #1,” write, "Press number one.” The symbol can be misinterpreted to mean “Pound one.” Same goes for the * ("star") symbol. Would you want to hear "asterisk"?
  • How should the talent pronounce a zero? Some people bristle at hearing "oh" instead of "zero" (just ask your middle school math teacher!), and, of course, it can easily be confusing. On the other hand, if your talent may not be familiar with popular culture, you may want to spell out "double-oh seven," or mention the pronunciation in a note above the copy. But, if the script is informal, you might even prefer that all the zeros be read as "oh." It's conversational, and sometimes it's faster.

Type in "upper and lower" case. Not all-capitals

As print designers will tell you, "all caps" is harder to read than "upper and lower." It’s better to italicize, bold, or underline a word you want emphasized. But not all three, or the voice actor will likely over-emphasize the word.

Make the printed lines of moderate length

Here we mean the actual physical length of each line, not the length of the actor's "lines." Don't print them edge-to-edge. Long lines are harder to read, and hinder the voice actor's eye from moving easily from one line to the next. A 65-character maximum is good. (By the way, the same is generally true of printed matter -- which is why this paragraph probably doesn't span the entire width of your computer screen.)

Also use equal-width margins, so that the performer can write a small note on either side. In an Audio/Video script (with video and audio columns side-by-side), the width of the Audio and Video columns will, of course, be narrower.

Format "flush left, ragged right."

In other words, don't justify the text. A straight right-hand margin opens up spaces between words, making it impossible for the voice actor to know whether you intended extra space or not.

Format

Avoid awkward line breaks.

Whenever practical, keep each phrase on one line, rebreaking the lines on the page if necessary. And don't break a sentence right before an orphaned or unexpected word, for example:

Life insurance is critical. But don’t buy it unless you are dead
sure that you need it.

Consider re-ordering your phrases for easier comprehension

For example, the words "for example" are best put at the beginning of the sentence, so listeners will know exactly what to make of the words that come next.

Double-space the copy

Doing so makes the script more easily readable, and leaves room for the voice actor's markups.

Use a simple, common font, appropriately sized

Many people favor Helvetica (Arial) or similar "sans-serif" fonts. But in long copy, "Roman" fonts (such as Times or Century) are, technically, easier to read. However they are also often smaller in a given type size, so increase your size specification a point or two. Ten to twelve point Helvetica is optimal. For Times New Roman, make it eleven or twelve. And we hope we needn't add that you should avoid condensed styles and tight letterspacing, so we won't.

Try to put the script on a single page.

Even considering the advice above, a one-minute radio commercial should fit easily, as should a 30-second Audio/Visual (A/V) script.

Do not split a sentence between pages.

This makes a script difficult for the voice actor to read. It also makes for challenging audio editing, as page-turn sounds in the middle of sentences are more difficult to edit out. (When faced with a two-page script, the savvy voice actor will place the pages side by side, but that can make it difficult to maintain consistent microphone orientation.)

If you must use a second page (or more), put "Continued" at the bottom of the continued page.

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