Writing Scripts for Professional Narration

It's not just a bunch of words!

Over the years that I've worked as a narrator, I have sometimes had the amazing experience of walking into a recording session and finding a script that was literally illegible. And I mean, it was impossible for me, the producer, or even the engineer to read. Other times, I've worked from scripts were clear to the eye, but contained phrasing that assaulted the ear by ugly phrasing, or unintentional tongue-twisters. Sometimes a narrator will encounter a script that simply makes no sense, due to mismatched verbs, dangling modifiers, or other errors. These are all things that can be fixed -- should be fixed -- before the studio is booked. Now, don't get the wrong idea. I'm happy to say that many writers and producers create perfectly fine scripts, that do not make such blunders! Nevertheless, I am left with an inescapable conclusion:

Many people underestimate, or do not understand, the special requirements of audio-only or voice-over narration copy.

For that reason, it occurred to me that a page like this could be useful. There are many details -- more than enough to fill an entire college course. (Trust me -- I've taught some!) 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. (See the link to tongue-twisters below, for examples to avoid!)

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.

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:

  1. Do not hyphenate. If a complete word does not fit on a line, start a new line.
  2. Don't print narration copy single-spaced. Set your spacing to 1.5 or 2.0 (double-spaced). The extra vertical space not only makes it easier to read; it also gives the performer room in which to write directions, last-minute changes, and his/her own notes.
  3. Do not use "full justification" -- it tends to stretch out short words and compress long ones. This makes pacing more of a mental challenge than it needs to be. Leave a "ragged right" margin (left justification only).
  4. Avoid breaking sentences across page boundaries. This is not just to avoid page-turning noise in the studio; it also helps the performer read each sentence as a coherent whole.
  5. Avoid abbreviations. For example, if you expect to hear "pounds per square inch," don't write "psi." Psi is a letter in the Greek alphabet. If you do want to hear the acronym, not the phrase it stands for, then write it P-S-I. As a scriptwriter it is your job to specify every word, not to create a guessing-game in the studio.
  6. Avoid numerals. This "rule" is flexible, but not very. If you see the number 125 on a page, how do you say it aloud? Here are some possible options:
    • One hundred twenty-five (grammatically correct)
    • One hundred and twenty-five
    • A hundred twenty-five
    • A hundred and twenty-five
    • A hundred and a quarter
    • One-twenty-five
    As you can see, this creates another studio guessing-game. Using the grammatically correct form might create a more formal impression than the others; if that is what the writer intends, he or she should say so. Formality/informality is a fundamental stylistic choice that should be specified in the script. In some cases the wording of a numeral will be obvious from the script's context -- but not always. That's why I say this is somewhat flexible; in any case the writer should give some thought to how the numbers will sound when spoken aloud.
  7. Print the script in a reasonable typeface and size. The absolute minimum size of your font should be 12 points high, with 13 or 14 points sometimes being preferable, and in a normal style (not bold, and not italic). One might go with something a bit larger on a short script, but remember: the bigger the font, the more pages required -- meaning more page-turning during the performance. The choices of typestyles should be kept to businesslike choices like Courier, Century/Times Roman, or Arial/Helvetica. (Note: movie screenplays always use Courier 12.)
  8. Fax scripts using the Fine, or "high-resolution" (200x200) setting or above. If you send a final draft script to a performer -- the copy that is to be used during the recording session -- don't send it at the "normal" fax setting. It's pretty uncommon nowadays, but check and make sure anyway. With each decrease in resolution, parts of the letters simply disappear, and depending on the receiving machine, the script can become hard to read. So if time does not allow for mailing or shipping copy directly from the printer, take the time to fax it at the clearer, high-resolution setting. (Oh one final note: if you have an old fax machine that puts extraneous black lines on the page, and/or twists text out of shape because it doesn't feed correctly -- get a new one!)

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.

This page was adapted from the original at our sister website, the Online Communicator. Both versions are copyright (c) 1996-2009 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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