I've been at the VO game (off and on) for some time now, and as every working voice-over talent will tell you, ours can be a bit of a swamp to wade through. Back in the day (you know, when dinosaurs lurked in the studio), for the most part, a voice-over artist could at least count on properly written copy to read, with inflection marks, breath cues and pronunciation guides. With the advent of the internet, smaller start-ups, and direct-to-talent work, less copy is being written by actual copywriters, with more and more copy coming directly from the concept creator.
And while there is a plethora of information for burgeoning voice talent on how to read and interpret copy, there's scarce information for independent copywriters on how to write solid copy for the artists to work with.
I offer copywriting services for my current and prospective clients (feel free to inquire), and I have to say that the vast majority of this work is actually copy RE-writing: retooling the message to fit the bed constraints (that is, the given length of the spot), fixing grammatical abuse and simple, honest errors, making sure the copy makes sense, and using both pronunciation and diacritic mark-up to aid the talent in delivery. These are not only essential for the talent, but should be an absolute for clients wanting to get the absolute most out of their VO project, especially when using talent working remotely in their own studios who cannot employ either live ISDN/Source-Connect sessions, or some other manner of patch-in real-time voice direction. I have dozens of instances where a client brought me their message or original copy, saying "We just can't get the read we want with this. What can you do?" The answer is typically "I bet I can do a little work that'll help it flow," which actually translates into: I'll do for your copy what should have been done in the first place! So, what are these magical things?
- Write SHORT: I spend most of my efforts on removing roughly 25% of all the verbiage I see. My rule is, "If it doesn't further the message, the mood, or the tone, it's gone." You can always add words back in, but once copy is written, it's surprisingly hard to get it out. A useful analogy is the following: Think of your commercial or VO project like a soup. There are a few primary ingredients, with the main one being the meat (that is, "the message", and with apologies to my vegetarian friends), then the second players like liquids and other ingredients. Words are like spices to that soup. They impart flavor, and shape the "tone" of the soup. But ask any good cook what happens when you use too much salt? One element too many, and the soup is essentially ruined, or will take so much work to get back to palatable that it's best to just compost what you have and start again. In brief: start with fewer words.
- Grab a stop-watch: Grab your copy, run the watch, and see how long it takes to read it at a normal pace. It likely will take you 5-or-so seconds more than the allotted time allows. If that's the case, you've actually done really well! Any good VO artist can shave 5 seconds off a 60 sec spot with pacing alone. However, if it's more than 5 seconds over, you will need to do a bit of editing.
- Mark it up: If you have certain inflections that you feel will aid your message, make sure to communicate that in the script, either via comments or with mark-ups. Simple up/down arrows, smiley faces, underlining and other indications may seem silly, but they are invaluable aides to the talent. Simply sending them copy with the milquetoast "Don't sound like a typical announcer" at the bottom of the script is essentially useless. "Okay, you've told me what you don't want. How about sharing with me what you DO want?"ANY direction as far as inflection, pacing, tone, or delivery will go a long way with the talent. And, by all means, DO HELP WITH PRONUNCIATION! That help can take the form of phonetic guides (ex: "XiDudel" is pronounced "SIGH-doodel"), or (believe it or not) a simple phone call or voicemail message to the VO giving a primer.
- Punctuation, Grammar & Sentence Structure: Okay, as a writer, this last one makes me sort-of sad, but that's just the way it is. It should go without saying that all copy should be proofed. Unfortunately, that's typically not the case, and yes, by that I mean from agencies and production companies as well. I can't tell you how many times I had to rub the pain out of my eyes after reading storyboard copy from a reputable ad agency or production company! The pictures are all very pretty, the shot direction is wonderfully explicit, and the VO copy?
"John see that his routers lite blinking? He knows that he should calls mabell com and as for a tech, but where dose he find the number."
Yes, that's a made-up bit of copy, but sadly, it pales in comparison to some of the mutilated, molested words and sentences I've had foisted upon my weary eyes. The punctuation and structure of copy is absolutely essential help to your talent, and is critical to establishing flow, timing, and clarity of your message. People who are not trained writers tend to write for themselves, with their inner voice providing all the proper inflections, and their own breathing patterns establishing the pacing. But when that copy is handed off, the person tasked with reading (or speaking) it doesn't have the benefit of the writer's voice in their head to guide them. That's where punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure come in. Don't be afraid to mention to your VO talent "We did the copy in a bit of a hurry, so if you'd like to retool it, we'd appreciate the help. Just run it past us before you stripe it." That's pretty much all that need be done, and everyone will be happy. If not, just remember that unclear copy makes for an unclear read.