Don’t let bad copy eat you alive: What to do if the copy is less than perfect


You know the old joke about the lion who’s not a man-eater: “You know that, I know that ... but does the lion know that?” Among the many archived articles at EdgeStudio.com, from time to time we’ve talked about how to interpret copy, right down to the seemingly most inconsequential punctuation mark. Copy has gobs of clues as to how the copywriter “heard” it while writing, if you know what to look for.

But what if the copywriter doesn’t know it?

Not every copywriter formats or even words copy in the most intelligible way. There are many possible reasons. Maybe the commercial was written by an agency that does most of its work in online or print media. They probably realize that you need to take a breath now and then, but may not realize how easy it is to give you a nasty tongue twister.

But you can handle that; the real problem is when tangled words or homonyms confuse the listener. For example, “Win money and/or prizes!” Part of your job is to spot traps like that. Your phrasing and enunciation will determine whether the listener hears the words as written, or rather, “Win money and door prizes!”

Or, maybe the commercial wasn’t written by an experienced copywriter at all. Scripts are often written by someone wearing two hats – a producer, business owner or account executive, for example. The reasons for not using an experienced voice-script writer range from budgetary, deadline pressures, other priorities, naiveté, and -- sometimes -- ego.

Clients often come up with great scripts – nobody knows their business and their customers better than they do. But not every businessperson is creative, a fluid wordsmith, a whiz at grammar and spelling, and hip to voice acting, all rolled into one. Sometimes they may not know that they need to be. Or that they aren’t.

Whatever the reason behind a flawed script, changing the script yourself is generally not an option -- especially if it’s a remote audition or other situation where you don’t have two-way contact.

And even if you can point out errors to the client, if they’re judgment calls, your constructive suggestion might be taken as unwelcome criticism or could embarrass someone on the other side of the glass (or other end of the email exchange, whichever applies).
Here’s what do you do then, when the text you’re asked to read is hard for even you to follow after pre-reading it again and again.

1. As always, when you pre-read the script, don’t just look at the words. Consider the thought conveyed by each phrase. And the overall thought that the script is meant to convey. By adding all the qualities you do as an experienced voice over talent, you’ll take the script to a fresh, new level, involving the listener so that the awkward phrase or two often become relatively insignificant.

2. Are there too many commas (that aren’t in a list, that is), so that the script becomes choppy if you pause at all of them? Choose which ones you’ll pause at, and at the other commas, maybe change your tone of voice, or your pace, or pitch. Or, maybe the commas are there to tell you something about the intended style. In a commercial, for example, dare you go out on a limb and read in an eccentric way, as a sort of branding for the advertising? For example, pausing at all those commas, but reading each phrase relatively quickly. Our point here isn’t to tell you to do that. If everyone did, it would get tired pretty quick. But sometimes a script has some other oddity that suggests a fresh way to read it. The point is to put your imagination to work.

3. Too few breaks, one long run-on sentence that goes on for thirty words or more? Same thing – break it into thoughts, breathe were it is natural, and slow down a bit on the first words of each thought.

4. Are there spelling errors? It’s vs. its, who’s vs. whose ... who cares, this is audio. But don’t assume too quickly ... be sure you’re interpreting the error correctly. If you’re not sure what word they meant, ask ... or record the sentence both ways. And if it’s misspelled in the video part of the script, then you might point out the error tactfully: “Gee, you’ve probably corrected this already in your art direction, but if not, I’d feel terrible if I didn’t mention ... I think the second word in the super is misspelled.”

5. Is there a passage that just doesn’t make sense, or is so jumbled in the arrangement of its parts that anyone would find it hard to read it aloud? Well, first of all, it probably does make sense to the writer, so it’s your job to sort it out. For example (and we hasten to mention, we made this up. so as not to embarrass anyone): “You can use new product this for many things, in a way that let’s anyone whatever their skill level move the schedule of their next big formal corporate affair up.” (We threw in a couple of typos for good measure.) Good writing practice suggests that a verb phrase like “move up” shouldn’t be split by a lot of words, if it is to be split at all. So you might want to record an alternate take where the word “up” comes right after “moves.” But also see what you can do with this challenge. Break it into phrases, identify the key words or phrases to hit (what thoughts are most important to the point being made?), speed up a little through “the schedule of their next big formal corporate affair” with a short pause just before “up.” It might work nicely, especially if the date changes in the video at that moment.

6. Are there numbers and such that could be read various ways? For example, “3.5 million.” Say “three-point-five million” not “three and a half million.” Otherwise they probably would have written “3½” or “3-1/2”. If it really matters, they should have written “3-point-5 million” or included a note, but usually the most literal interpretation is safest, assuming it’s technically correct. A number 100 or 106 (say) is a similar situation. If the writer cares, he or she should spell it out. But you can think it through. Is it meant to sound large? Say “a hundred” because that lets you hit the “hundred.” If it’s meant to sound precise, say “one-hundred-six.” Is it mean to sound small compared to larger amounts? Hit the “one” and shrug your shoulders as you say it: “Just ONE hundred calories.”

7. Does every sentence start a new paragraph, so it looks like poetry? Assuming it’s not meant to be poetry (let’s suppose it’s instructions for bicycle assembly), this calls for some thoughtful pre-reading. When stacked sentences are of very different lengths, they’re hard to follow. It also makes it hard to see relationships between them. Lots of people write this way because they think that’s how a script should look. But consider this: maybe there’s supposed to be a clean break between each sentence, so that they can be used as voice prompts, or easily edited, or each matched to a distinct visual. If not, if it’s “ordinary” copy, you may want to insert some paragraph marks or brackets for your eye to follow. Or, if it’s a digital file, reformat the copy to your liking. Some people prefer narrow-ish lines, so in their peripheral vision they can see what’s coming, others prefer long lines, so there are fewer line-breaks. See what works best for you.

8. Is there a phrase, clause, or even a sentence that doesn’t seem all that important? Maybe it’s there for legal or technical reasons. Or maybe it’s just lackluster writing. But maybe it has an importance you’re not aware of. Or not. Sometimes the copywriter could have cut or reworded it, but as we said, not all copywriters are so careful. Think it through. You may have license to give it a little less shrift, by reading it relatively quickly, yet naturally. That will get the listener past it and give you a few more moments to play with the rest of the copy. Just be sure that you don’t decrease your volume, that you still have energy, and that you clearly enunciate all the words in that passage.

9. Are there brand names or industry terms that you have no idea how to pronounce? Don’t be shy about asking the client. But first, at least learn what the word means, or what it’s the name of, so you can ask intelligently. If the client is unavailable (as in some audition situations), check the various online pronunciation tools (see a list of them at EdgeStudio.com’s Free Career Center. If the word isn’t listed, look for videos where it might be used, or call a trade magazine or organization.

10. Are there a lot of character voices in the script, but you don’t do character voices? Again, look from a fresh vantage point. Maybe those lines aren’t meant to sound like different characters. How about if you read the whole thing in one voice, as an average person telling a tale about various characters might do? That is, the narrator is just quoting the characters, not imitating them. That might even be more effective. Not every script is fodder for your demo animation demo. Sometimes underplaying the script is the more natural, the more real way to make the copywriter’s point.

That’s a good point to close on. Don’t get hung up on scriptwriting mistakes, and don’t think less of any client who gives them to you. They’re usually not so major that you can’t smooth them out. Consider them opportunities. They’re insight into the client’s own capabilities and priorities. They enable you to shine where others might be confused. As your relationship with the client or director grows, your input will probably be welcome as part of a fruitful collaboration. But first you have to get the gig, and get past the first job.

And most importantly, don’t get cocky; sometimes they’re not mistakes at all, but the result of your own misinterpretation. A mistake like that can really eat you alive.

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