Speaking Your Mind:
Ten Tips to Help You Write for A Narrator

by Ric Getter
Published in Marcom Choices, February 1999

Whether you're preparing a script for a high-budget, Hollywood voice or just somebody in your office who sounds good (or thinks so), there's a lot that you, the scriptwriter can do to make the recording session faster, easier and ultimately cheaper. Having been on the directing and engineering side of a lot of voice-over sessions for better than ten years, it sometimes amazes me how few writers have caught on to these fairly simple but very useful techniques for writing and formatting your script.

Even if your voice talent is the guy in the next cubicle, studio time is expensive. And, like most communication professionals, your ultimate success and your budget require getting it all right the first time around.

Your main goal is to always have a script that can be read as easily and accurately as possible. If it's easy to read, there will be fewer bad takes and your session will go more smoothly. If it can be read accurately, there will be less wasted time during the session and a much smaller chance of a budget-breaking return visit to correct something that's been misread. The goal is to spend your time at the session making sure your words read well, rather than simply working to have them read correctly.

What may surprise you is that how your script is formatted in can make the biggest difference. So, the first few tips will help you get your word-processor set up for the task. The rest will show you some ways to put your words on paper and make sure they are read how they are supposed to be.

1. ALWAYS double-space

When you're reading, having that extra space between the lines makes it much easier for your eyes to figure out which line comes next. That becomes even more important when you have to read something aloud. If you have any doubt, just try it yourself.

Secondly, there will invariably be a need to mark up the script at the session. Even if there are no last-minute changes (a prospect that would evoke hysterical laughter from most of you), it will let the voice-over talent mark his or her script as they usually do, to note the inflections and pauses they want to deliver.

2. Making a case for mixed-case

In the broadcast environment, it's common for voice-over scripts to be in all upper-case. This is a throwback to the days when radio news copy came straight off teletype terminals that were simply too dumb to produce lower-case letters and some veteran announcers still prefer their copy that way. However, there is a lot to be said for maintaining mixed case, i.e. normal capitalization. First, it makes sentence breaks more obvious and secondly, it points out proper nouns that are not always obvious. The word "apple" would be spoken quite differently as the name of your product than as an ingredient in a recipe.

3. Marginal thinking

The wide margins allow plenty of room for notes and revisions. However, they offer a second benefit. Leaving one and a half inch margins on each side and the bottom and two inches on the top on a page with roughly twelve-point type and (of course) double-spacing will produce a page that takes about one minute to read. You should always check the length by reading aloud, if timing is an issue for you, but this trick will help you along as you're writing.

4. Use your headers and footers

Your announcer will want to turn the pages of his or her script as quickly and quietly as possible, so they will usually want the script unstapled and unbound. It's easy to imagine how something as simple as unnumbered pages can cause some real problems in a session. Most word processors will also let you put the date and time the file was either printed or last saved in the header or footer. When you have multiple revisions floating around the office, this is something that can also save a lot of confusion.

If a copy of the script is to be left with the recording studio for audio editing or post-production (adding music, slide-cues, etc.), it is helpful to include your company name, phone, show title and your name. Any standard warnings about the scripts confidentiality should appear on each page, as well.

5. Breaking up (a page) is hard to do

You don't want your announcer needing to turn a page in the middle of a sentence. It makes reading hard and the rustling paper can cause some serious problems in post-production. Most word processors will have the option to prevent a paragraph from crossing a page-break (Microsoft Word commonly calls it "Keep Lines Together"). When the voice-over is edited, the sound of page turns can be easily evicted from the pause between paragraphs.

6. When in doubt, spell it out

Audio recording has reaped numerous benefits from advances in high technology. Unfortunately, the industry's propensity for using acronyms, arcane model numbers and obscure protocol references can cause a tremendous amount of confusion in recording sessions (and sadly, an occasional unplanned return visit to the recording studio).

Take this line for example:

"Our Hypertron Model 2010 multiplexer is based on the 54Kbps, V.90 protocol and our Adabus controller offers full support of the SCSI interface on your PC..."

This sentence, as innocent as it looks (at least to us Silicon Valley-types), is a virtual minefield for your announcer.

Is your Hypertron a Model twenty-ten, a two-thousand-ten, or a two-oh, one-oh? Also, do you really want to hear fifty-four K-B-P-S or did you really mean fifty-four thousand bits per second (hmm, or was that supposed to be "bytes"?) Because of our location, we may be able to assume that the announcer will know that "V.90", as a communications protocol, is usually spoken "Vee-dot-nintey" or "Vee-ninety" and SCSI is "scuzzy", but will they know that your product has an AID-a-bus controller and not an ADD-a-bus?

It may look strange, but using clear, phonetic spelling from your first draft onward is always a good idea. As your script goes through its internal review cycles, it allows others to offer clarifications and pick out mistakes which wouldn't be apparent until they had the chance to hear something close to the finished product. Going back to the studio replace a word or phrase can do a number on your budget.

The trick to creating clear, phonetic spellings is to use common words as syllables and place the accented syllable in all upper-case. If you have any doubt whether your creation is clear enough, have somebody unfamiliar with the word try reading it. The phonetic spellings of obscure words can replace the "proper" spelling of the term in your script or appear in parentheses beside them. Professional announcers are used to working with it both ways.

Finally, you should not expect the narrator to expand abbreviations. If you want them to say "personal computer", write it out in full. Putting dashes between the letters of an abbreviation (e.g. "P-C-I") will make spoken abbreviations even easier to identify.

7. The point of punctuation:

You should be aware of the effect of quotation marks. Your narrator will accentuate a word or phrase in quotes. If this is done too frequently, it can make the script sound too technical or didactic. You can use a dash or em-space (" — ") to create a more dramatic, mid-sentence pause than produced by a comma. However, this device is also subject to over-use.

When your narrator reaches the end of a paragraph (best indicated by an extra space or two between lines as well as an indentation), he or she will pause slightly longer than between sentences. These pauses can often help the flow of a section that is extremely dense (with information, that is) as well as aiding in transitions between topics.

8. Give your sentences a "breath-test"

This is one of the most common problems with voice-over scripts. It's easy to forget that narrators have to breathe. Even if a perfectly structured sentence is too long, it simply will not work in a voice-script. Try reading this example aloud and you'll discover the problem:

"Our Hypertron Model two-thousand-ten multiplexer is based on the v-dot-ninety protocol and our AID-a-bus controller version four-point-one offers full support of the SCSI interface on your personal computer..."

If your pulmonary system is in reasonable shape, you probably didn't start gasping for air until somewhere around "SCSI." Any sentence that is greater than two lines in length should be suspect.

9. Avoid redundancy. Avoid redundancy. Avoid redundancy.

What is a minor problem in written prose can become a glaring error in a voice-script. Repeated words, especially when they end two consecutive sentences, sound very bad when read aloud. With the exception of pronouns, prepositions and the like, you should carefully check your script to make sure the same word or key phrase is not repeated too often and the repetitions are not too close together.

This is always a difficult problem to spot on paper because it is something we pay less attention to while reading as opposed to listening. So, it may be a good idea to listen to your script being read before going into the session.

Sometimes, the nature of the subject may require a certain phrase to be frequently repeated. If you can't avoid it, varying its position in a sentence can make it sound less cumbersome when it is read.

10. Dodging twisted tongues

Sometimes a phrase that sound good on paper can be murder to read out loud. You may not run into them that often, but they will become quite obvious in your session. This is yet another good reason to road-test your script by reading it aloud.

There you have it. Your script is ready for the session. But what can you do to prepare? We'll talk about that in your next installment.