Words-to-Time Calculator: Give better VO estimates, faster

Vocal skill and business sense are key to maintaining a voice-over career, and so is a sense of neighborliness. These attributes work synergistically. After all, ours is a people business in so many ways. In the almost two decades since we at Edge Studio began focusing on the voice-over community, we have grown largely because we treat the VO industry as a community.

So at EdgeStudio.com, we offer a broad range of free VO resources for voice actors and people who work with them. For example, one of our widely useful tools is the Words-to-Time Calculator. Here's an updated look at how to use it to your best advantage ...

The Edge Studio Words-To-Time Calculator tells you how long a script will take to read. It's a valuable tool for working VO talent to use every day.

Scriptwriters and copywriters also use this tool, to estimate how many words fit a certain amount of time. (If, as a voice artist, you've ever been faced with a script that's just too long or too short, you appreciate copywriters who can gauge how long their audio copy is.)

Our Calculator lets voice talent create more accurate estimates, more quickly. The faster you can judge a script's finished length, the faster you can return an estimate. This is especially helpful with a long script, such as a corporate training series or audiobook. Simply specify the number of words in the script, or paste the script, or tell it the average number of words per line, number of lines and the page count – and it gives you the time of the finished audio.

Better yet, it allows you to adjust the wps (words per second) to compensate for a variety of situations.

As we all know, scripts vary greatly from genre to genre. A video documentary narration is likely to be much more deliberately paced than some radio commercials. The pace of a script can also vary according to the audience, or the nature of its content. For example, an audience of non-native English speakers (or whatever the language), or technical matter, will need a bit more time to sink in.

So our Calculator strikes an average. It gives five choices, representing an extremely wide range from 1 to 5 words per second. In the span of a minute, that's a huge difference ... potentially a lot of copy to fit, or a copy opportunity wasted. So, the first thing is to understand the typical needs of the genre you're writing in.

1 wps: Extremely slow, representative of scripts such as some telephone prompt systems, English as a Second Language (ESL) and other scripts aimed at an audience not fluent in the language, some meditational and breathing tutorials, and so on. Even at the slowest possible read, you're unlikely to slow down to one word per second. But this estimate includes time for some variables (as we mention below). It's also simple to make mathematical adjustments when you start with this.

3 wps: This is a moderately fast pace, representative of some scripts. It's an average speed, at which many people speak in normal enthusiastic conversation. But it's on the high side and doesn't allow for pauses and breaths that would also be present in a normal conversation. Think of this as the speed we often hear from lawyers talking amongst themselves in a legal drama, or in a relatively short, copy-heavy commercial. Sustaining this rate for 60 seconds could tire the listener.

5 wps: Yes, this is do-able. But it generally takes a trained professional and even then is likely to sound like the legal boilerplate we hear at the end of contest announcements. Some talent can read this quickly and still sound fairly natural (for the context, at least), others are more suited to other styles. Consider this when casting. This speed is also applicable if you know the engineer will digitally speed up your recording, such as for a fast tag.

You can also specify in-between, at 2 or 4 words per second.

If unsure whether the genre calls for reading copy slowly or quickly, an average of 2.5 wps is reasonably safe. If still unsure, hedge to the short side (slower), because it's easier to stretch a read, or for the copywriter to add copy, than for talent to do the impossible.

There are other variables, less significant, but still worth considering:

Short words or long? Some copy has lots of short words. Other scripts (especially technical or educational subjects) tend to have a lot of longer, multisyllabic words. Obviously, it takes less time to say "long" than "multisyllabic." So when calculating a script, consider whether its words tend to be longer, shorter, or similar to in length to those in an average script.

Hyphenated words. Is a hyphenated word one word, or two? Our Calculator counts a hyphenated word as one word. But it might take the time of two.

Various types of pauses. You should adjust results for any major pause(s). A comma usually indicates a short pause but is negligible. (In fact, there are some exceptions where a comma is just traditional or typographic. For example, "Martin Luther King, Jr." is generally said without a pause after "King.") The end of a sentence is a longer pause, just slightly. A dash or ellipsis, longer still, and it becomes significant. Our Calculator ignores punctuation, except that it counts a double-hyphen (a simulated dash) as an extra word. If you want that ignored, use an actual dash character. But if you have many such breaks in the flow, either allow a bit of time for them or rework your writing.

In Telephony, Interactive Voice Response and related fields, when a computer assembles words and phrases to form a sentence, it puts a slight bit of space between phrases, to help transitions sound natural and give the listener a moment to absorb what's said. For example, "For sales,... press 1..........For service,... press 2........" These eight words take more time in the final delivery than our Words-to-Time Calculator will predict.

Numbers take longer to speak. E.g., “The 2017 Honda starts at $29,800.” This is 6 words, but could take as long to say as these 14 words: “The two-thousand-and-seventeen Honda starts at twenty-nine thousand, eight hundred dollars.” (That's an example, not necessarily the best way to read it. Many variables enter into such choices.)

Abbreviations. They may also take more time. For example, the four letters in "COPD" are actually four words. (But at least it's shorter than saying "Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease"!) To account for such an "initialism" (where letters are individually pronounced, as opposed to an "acronym" such as the US government agency "FEMA"), put a space between each letter when testing. Remember to remove the spaces in the final script.

Other tweaks in estimating time

In some genres, breaths are routinely deleted or minimized to save time and smooth the flow. (We're talking here about ordinary breaths, not long, dramatic pauses.) This means the final recording will be shorter than when you voiced it.

Usually, the time that each breath took is shortened by nearly half, which adds up to significant time. For example, if a one-hour training video has 600 sentences (or clauses, whatever – in other words, 600 breaths), and a half-second is cut from each, then the final edited recording will be 300 seconds shorter than the original. That's 5 minutes!

At its moderate settings, our Calculator assumes the person reading the script takes normal breaths at normal intervals. If you will shorten or delete breaths, take this into consideration.

Conversely, if long musical breaks and/or sound effects will be added, then your script must have fewer words than calculated for a given amount of time. Allow for this, too.

Other uses

Yet another purpose, brought to our attention by a user: live performance. A theater troupe, wanting to pare its script to fit in the allotted show time, uses our Calculator as a rough gauge. Because time needs to be allowed for stage direction, audience reaction, etc., the 1 wps speed is usually the best starting point for live situations.

It's handy, and once you've found your personal "fudge factor," you may find yourself using it continually, in estimating long jobs, and for comparisons, and to spot trends. But, with experience, you'll be able to tell about how much time a short script will take simply by glancing at it, or by reading aloud. But short script or long, it's always good to have this validation.

And while you're trying it out, also explore the many other resources in our Free Career Center in the Edge-ucation section of EdgeStudio.com.

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