Writing for Audio
Many people underestimate the special requirements of audio-only or voice-over narration copy. There are many details -- more than enough to fill an entire college course. (Trust me -- I've taught one!) But here are some highlights that will help you avoid the major pitfalls, and improve on what you already know.
And remember: most of these tips can be applied to any script written for vocal performance (e.g. TV, movies, etc.).
Write for the ear. Do not judge the quality of a script by how it looks on the page. It often happens that a piece that is enjoyable (or at least clear), when read silently from a printed page, may not work at all when read aloud. It doesn't matter whether the original document is a brochure, report, or even a literary work such as a novel. The style, wording and sentence structure should be adapted for aural delivery (via the ear). So, read each script aloud and listen to the sound. Check It's Hard to Say, the page of tongue-twisters here, to see what might happen if this advice is ignored.
Keep it simple. Remember: audio is a serial-access (linear) medium! Even within so-called non-linear media, words must be heard, and understood, in sequence. Thus, the writer should avoid long, complex sentences with numerous modifying clauses and phrases. If a sentence starts getting beyond 20 words, see if there is some way to break it up. One area to avoid is "business-speak." Example: "Utilize" has three syllables; "use" has only one. Avoid using long words if there are shorter ones that work just as well.
Use the active voice. You may hear this advice often, but it is often explained poorly. Verbs can have different tenses, voices, forms, and other variations. For example, "Bill is walking the dog," and "Bill walks the dog," are both a form of the present tense, and they are both in active voice. Clearly, the second phrase sounds simpler and more "active" but that is not what is meant by the grammatical term "active voice."
Who or what is the subject of the sentence or clause? That is the single clearest way to distinguish the active voice from the passive voice. In the examples above, "Bill" is the subject of the sentence. He is the person or thing that performs the action (i.e., the verb) of the sentence. By contrast, if the dog becomes the subject, the resulting sentence is "The dog is walked by Bill." The verb in that sentence is "to be" (in the form "is"), and sentence describes the dog's state of "being." This is a passive voice construction, because the subject of the sentence is not the one doing the action (walking). The verb "to walk" is still the main action, but it is no longer the verb of the sentence. Apart from the explanation, this is a deliberately blatant example, but be wary. It is easy to let much subtler passive constructions slip into your work unnoticed.
Helping verbs are a clue to passive constructions, primarily any form of the verb "to be" when used together with any form of some other verb. This is a simplistic way of checking your writing for active voice. A better solution is to understand the ins and outs of verb structures. Some of the grammar-related links on the main Writing page of this website may provide help in this area.
Use correct punctuation. The English language provides perfectly functional things like periods, commas, colons, semi-colons, and dashes, all of which indicate either a separation of ideas, a place to pause, or both. So try not to use (parentheses) or the / slash for those purposes. And above all,
beware the dreaded three-dot ... ellipsis. An ellipsis is a print-media tool, used primarily for editing quotations; its purpose is to indicate content that the author has deleted from the source. Far too often, scriptwriters unsure of punctuation "rules" get in the habit of using dots throughout a script -- often going well beyond the mere three dots of a true ellipsis!
Commas and periods are the preferred method of showing where ideas begin and end, and where pauses occur. And in practical use, during a recording session the performer may add other markings to the script according to the director's instructions at the time. If the script starts out with indifferent or haphazard use of punctuation, it simply makes the script harder for the talent to read -- and can affect the performance negatively.
Don't use dots for pauses. After performing other people's scripts for many years, I advise writers not to use dots to indicate "a long pause." To start with, the scriptwriter should not try to direct from the page. You only need to indicate specific pauses that are not self-evident from the context of your script (including proper punctuation). In other words, give the talent some credit for being able to interpret your script! Then, only if necessary, write (PAUSE) where needed, just as you would insert any audio cue or direction. Instead of a parenthetical cue, another option is simply to use dashes -- between words -- like that.
However, it is an acceptable convention of dramatic writing to use the ellipsis at the end of a sentence to indicate that a character's voice trails off without finishing an idea, or to suggest that further items could be added to a list of things already stated. "It was a great party! I met new people, had some drinks, ate a lot, danced, talked, laughed
. . ."
And finally, note that there are different opinions about the spacing of dots or dashes if you feel you must use them. In the traditional literary ellipsis there is a space between each dot, and a space before and after the whole thing. Personally, If I were to use ellipses in a dramatic script I would probably cut out the extra spaces, but that can be a matter of choice. As for dashes -- there should be two, together, with a space before and a space after. If your word processor allows it, use "hard hyphens" for dashes instead of "normal" hyphens. (Check your manual or Help system.)
Make it legible. Remember, an audio script is not only heard in linear form -- it is also performed in linear form. Here are some tips to follow, and pitfalls to avoid, to help your narrator do a better job for you:
Do not let "helpful" technology get in the
way! That suggestion applies to almost everything in life, but in
this case we're only talking about how to get a script delivered to a performer
in a form that can be used. It goes beyond writing per se, but it is definitely
part of the interaction between the writer (or producer) and the talent. I'm
only including one specific tip under this heading:
Ensure compatibility, if sending script as a computer file. Increasingly, producers send scripts not as faxes, and not as hard copy by mail, but as file attachments to email messages. This is great, but it only works if the performer has the correct software that can open, read and print the file! If you want to send a document from (for example) Microsoft Word, the program offers many different formats in which to save the file. Find out which will work best at the receiving end. The same goes for PDF files used by Adobe Acrobat software: some older versions of the Acrobat reader can't read PDF files saved in the latest Acrobat formats. Since a script should not require anything all that complex, just use an older file format to be on the safe side. And finally, if you're using some type of compression software to make the file smaller --like ZIP or RAR or the like -- don't assume that the performer is equipped with the tools to unpack and read the file. Ask first.
(c) 1996-2008 Rich Wilson. This information is provided as a public service for your use only. Please do not alter, duplicate or distribute it elsewhere. Thanks!
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