How do I punctuate a voiceover script?
While I was writing the article on 5 things voiceover artists wish copywriters knew, I surveyed my community of voiceover artists for their thoughts. There were a few pet peeves that came up several times, but all of these were triumphed by this most frequent mistake: poor punctuation.
Punctuation makes or breaks a voiceover script, so use marks with intention.
I remember as an elementary student, I was hypercritical of writers using punctuation correctly. If there was an extra comma or a semicolon used as a colon, I was the first to point it out. My punctuation usage was immaculate, and I never veered from the grammar rules of the given style.
As my journey as a writer furthered, I became more relaxed within the strict “rules” of punctuation. I began to add commas in emails to imitate my own, personal rhythm of speech. I am so far relaxed now, that when I am playing within the realm of poetry, I frequently toss it out altogether.
The reason for this is that punctuation and spelling rules all come from the collective understanding of how our language works.
This is good. Having a structured language with rules allows us to communicate and teach language effectively. In dense, critical papers and peer reviewed journals, grammar rules allow us to convey long, complex ideas with efficiency and even finesse.
But grammar rules do not translate perfectly to speech patterns. In other words, we tend to speak differently than we write.
When writing with grammatical reverence, copywriters may be careful to avoid commas that incorrectly identify an independent clause, and using grammatically correct punctuation may lead to lengthy sentences with few or little punctuation marks.
However, we tend not to speak with such gravitas. When not enough commas are applied, the script can leave the voiceover artist at a loss for understanding. Those mental pauses gifted by commas are guides for voiceover artists. They signal a change in thought. Without them, the script may not be understood by the voiceover artist or the listener.
Conversely, too many commas break up the text. They can make one sentence – one thought – sound like a haphazard amalgamation of ideas with no common theme.
Punctuation sets the rhythm of a voiceover script, so you need to know what effect you want your script to have. If you want the listener to be relaxed and set at ease, your script should allow for flow and use commas sparingly. Want something poppy and exciting? Keep your sentences short altogether. Use full stops. Or exclamations!
Also, remember that while we have been taught to write formally without contractions, people tend to use them in speech. Good voiceover artists will not place contractions where there aren’t any, but I know very few who haven’t wished they could have.
Similarly, don’t shy away from beginning sentences in voiceover scripts with a contraction. Even if it pains you to see it on the page, it will lift off the script by the voiceover’s vocals just fine.
Below are some guides to understanding how common punctuation is understood and effectively utilized in voiceover scripts.
Commas and Full Stops
Commas and full stops are your best friends. When reading aloud, a comma is a slight pause. There is a small breath occasionally, though not always.
Full stops, however, end an idea, and will most certainly have a breath. This is not to say every thought must fit within one sentence and in one breath. That would be astronomically difficult and, again, we tend not to speak that way.
If you notice your sentence/thought is longer than a line of text in a standard document (approximately 25 words), see if there is somewhere you can add a comma, or perhaps split the thought into two smaller sentences.
Splitting up complex ideas into smaller segments may sound rudimentary and call back homework nightmares from grade school, but revising content into smaller doses is necessary. If a consumer reads a complex text, they have option to re-read it for better understanding. Listeners are rarely given the opportunity to replay a voiceover, whether it be an ad, an e-leaner or otherwise. So keep this in mind when checking for coherence.
The number one way to know if a voiceover actor will find the pauses natural or unnatural, is if the copywriter has read it aloud first. You will stumble on all sorts of places where a comma is actually unnecessary for the flow of the piece.
Exclamation points add extra emphasis. If every line of your script uses an exclamation point, there is no longer more-and-less emphasis; it’s all the same. To ensure you are not overusing exclamations, when you re-read your script, check to make sure you have more full stops than exclamations. This gives variety of emphasis and tone.
Em-Dashes and En-Dashes
These are great way to add excitement to a script without overusing exclamation points. Dashes bring your attention to what’s within the segment – like this – or at the end – like this.
Similar to writing for reading, parentheticals are great to offset information that is critical in understanding, but should not be as important as the remaining text. As a voiceover artist, I tend to drop my pitch a tiny bit, but it varies script by script.
Colons and Semi-Colons
Grammatically, colons are used to introduce words, phrases, lists of items or quotations. In voiceover scripts, they function the same. They are factual, certain and decisive with a hint of emphasis to whatever follows.
When a semi-colon is used to connect independent clauses, they read as a pause longer than the length of a comma and shorter than a full stop. They function as if the thought itself could finish, but it overhears itself and realizes it needs to carry on.
I have a wonderful love affaire with the semi-colon and use it (perhaps overuse it) frequently. With this being said, in all honesty, I avoid using them in voiceover scripts. It is much simpler for a voiceover artist to work through a script with easy punctuation.
Semi-colons have a strange ability to cause anxiety in many readers (probably due their frequent misuse), so I put them to rest while writing for the human voice – anything to make the script clearer and easier to translate to voice for the recording artist.
Remember that while you may have been taught to write formally without contractions, people tend to use them in speech. Good voiceover artists will not place contractions where there aren’t any already written in the script, but I know very few who haven’t wished they could’ve.
Remove punctuation marks that stand in place of words. En-dashes when signifying dates, 1889-1930 for example, can be replaced with the actual word you would like your voiceover artist to read (in this case, ‘through’ or ‘to’). The same idea applies to backslashes and forward slashes; just spell it out for your voiceover artist so that they can record in confidence.
Good luck, and happy writing!