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Insider Perspectives: Dos and Don'ts of VO Script Writing

Updated: Mar 25

We're back, and we're going to shake things up a bit by getting some of our talented voice actors from around the world to weigh in on what they like to see (and don't like to see) in regards to scripts. Whether you're new to writing voiceover scripts, or you've been doing it for a while, you can always benefit from some additional input. So let's step behind the scenes and get some insider perspectives!

a clapper board on a film set

Sometimes when writing scripts, it can be easy to get too caught up in the information you need to convey, but you need to keep a few key things in mind. “Try to make sure the voice fits the product,” suggested UK talent Carl. We've talked a bit about this in a previous blog, but Jason from the US put it succinctly by saying to “write the script for the ear of the listener.” It's always important to consider who your target audience is, and allow that to help you determine the tone and phrasing. Jason then added, “Also, proofread it for typos and to make sure it makes sense,” a sentiment echoed by most of the other voice actors interviewed.

In fact, one of the biggest frustrations for voice actors is getting scripts that haven't been properly edited. “When a script has spelling mistakes, it makes it hard for me to do my job because I don’t know if they are intentional or not,” said Stephanie, one of our Canadian talents. She advised that before passing it along to the voice actor you should “[m]ake sure your script is proof read, the VO will read whatever is on the page.” Having errors in the script can lead to more work if only caught after receiving the recorded audio, because then you'll have to make a revision and arrange for the actor to do retakes. Sometimes if a voice actor catches these mistakes, they may take the initiative to do an alternative take with a different word or phrasing, in an effort to get ahead of this. But you can't count on the actor to catch it, let alone to correct it on their own. “[S]ometimes the customer strongly suggests I should 'fix whatever doesn't look good,'” said David, who hails from France. “Which is an entire different job from voice acting!” While he also works as a translator due to his bilingual fluency, editing services shouldn't be expected of voice talent. Voice actors aren't copy editors, and they won't always know if something is off while reading it. Not to mention there are clients who are adamant that the script be read exactly as written, which dissuades actors from taking any initiative in resolving errors.

Beyond correcting errors, ensure that the script is truly finalized before sending it to the talent to record. “I have received scripts that are not final,” said Mohita, a native Marathi and Hindi speaking talent from India. “Instead, they'll send me a 1000 word script of which half of the script will be scratched out!” David said he'd encountered this, too, and that it requires more recording later when additional content is added. Much like with ensuring all of the mistakes are fixed, check that everything you want and need in the script is there before sending it off. Actors will do their best to match the original recording when doing additional takes, but it's difficult to get a new recording to seamlessly match the original. To avoid patchy sounding audio, as well as additional fees paying for retakes, just give the script a few good checks. Maybe read it out loud to yourself to see if anything sounds funny, or if you forgot something important.

But try to avoid sending a recording of yourself reading it to the voice actor. You may think it's a helpful tool, but it doesn't really provide any special guidance for them that couldn't be achieved through direction notes. Mohita suggested, “Instead, you can make annotations in the script, leave pronunciation guidelines. Reference links are perfectly acceptable too.” FlyVoiceover's founder and one of the available British talents, Rosko, had also encountered this. He added, “The script and the script alone should tell us all we need to know. Using italics, bolds and good quality script writing is all we need to prompt the right recording.” While voice actors aren't trained copy editors, they are trained acting professionals, and should know what they're doing. “Have faith in the ability of the VO to deliver,” advised Rosko. “Once you over-instruct, you start to play with their instincts and potentially squish their natural approach to what you've put before them.”

Something that's rarely considered is that the version of the script sent to the voice actor shouldn't necessarily be the same version sent to the person making the video or animating the scene. When asked about things the actors don't like encountering in scripts, Mohita said, “I also find it annoying when I get sent a whole lot of other peripheral information which is not to be recorded, like, diagrams and brand information and notes to the video editor, etc.” It was a sentiment shared by others, with Stephanie saying, “It’s best when the script is clearly written out so I can see what they want me to read, not include camera or stage directions unless they are clearly marked 'do not read' or in a different colour.” This ultimately comes down to, as Stephanie explained, clarity. The actor shouldn't have to sift through things in an effort to find their part. If you need to have additional content, ensure there's some visible indication that it's to be ignored by the actor, so you don't accidentally get recordings of notes or text meant for slides.

Another important element in crafting your script involves pronunciation guides, something that Mohita touched on earlier. David even put it as one of his pet peeves when there are “scripts full of technical words, acronyms and names with no pronunciation guide.” Sometimes you can find an actor who has a background in the field the script discusses, like medicine or engineering, so they may be familiar with how certain words or acronyms are pronounced. But it's not always the case, and it's not a good idea to assume. A good habit to get into is to have pronunciation guides for all of those, whether as a note at the start of the script, or in parentheses after the word. This also applies to numbers, as a way of ensuring consistency throughout the piece. For example, do you want the actor to say fifteen hundred or one thousand five hundred? When saying the year 2023, do you want them to say twenty twenty three, or two thousand twenty three? Simple things like that often go overlooked, but are important things to consider when preparing your script. Leaving these guides out may result in retakes later to fix things, so it's better to include them to avoid that.

Finally, when it comes to crafting your script, there's one element that's so important Rosko even wrote an entire blog post on it: write it like an actual person is saying it. “[W]rite as if you were talking,” Carl suggested. “A lot of scripts assume we all have plums in our mouths. We don’t.” Meaning don't write it like a stuffy, posh speech, but instead think about how a regular person would phrase things as if they were just chatting. This is especially important when considering any time constraints you may have for the project. Like, if the read is meant to be exactly five minutes or less, you need to be conscious of keeping it sounding natural while still getting all of the information in there. “[T]rying to fit too much copy into a timed script” is something Jason warned against, and for good reason. Even if you keep the phrasing natural, it will come across forced and rushed if the actor has to speed read it in order to get it to fit within the allotted time. As with trying to find mistakes, it's a good idea to read the copy to yourself in an effort to ensure it sounds natural and doesn't go on longer than you need it to. If you find yourself tripping over a phrase, re-work it. If you can't read it fully within the time allowed, think about ways of making it more concise without losing its tone.

Writing a script may seem simple enough when you boil down the main important bits: Be concise, keep it sounding natural, provide pronunciation guides, and make sure to proof read. Even so, it can be a tricky bit of work, so make sure you take the time to get it right and fully polished before sending it off to get recorded. Trying to cut corners or rush things may result in errors that could have easily been prevented, and that in turn leads to retakes that cost more money and time. In the end it means you could have wasted more time fixing it than you would have spent ensuring the script was proofed and ready in the first place. And make sure the script is either only the text you want the actor to say, or that it very clearly identifies what is and is not meant to be recorded. This reduces confusion and the risk of getting the wrong recording. So keep your wallet—and your voice actors—happy by taking a moment to double check that it all looks perfect.

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