How to fine-tune our site’s free Words-to-Time Calculator
Sep 15 2016
Have you used our Words-to-Time Calculator? It’s one of the many free resources at EdgeStudio.com. If 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. This can help with that.
But our Calculator is also a valuable tool for working VO pros to use every day. For example, on a big job (like a long corporate video or an audiobook), it lets you quickly gauge the finished length of the script, so you can just as quickly return an estimate. And it’s even more helpful when you know how to tweak the results.
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. An audience of non-native English speakers (or whatever the language), or technical matter, for example, will need a bit more time to sink in.
So our Calculator is an average. Currently, our Calculator gives three choices, representing an extremely wide range: either 1, 3 or 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 some narrations, telephone prompt systems, and English as a Second Language (ESL) or other scripts aimed at an audience not fluent in the language. Even at the slowest possible read, you’re unlikely to slow down to one word per second. But this estimate includes time for some moderate pauses. (As we mention below, it’s also simple to mathematical adjustments when you start with this.)
3 wps: This is a moderately fast pace, representative of some commercials and “high-powered” presentations. It’s the 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.
If unsure whether the genre calls for reading copy slowly or quickly, go for an average. An average of 2.5 wps is reasonably safe. (Use the 1 wps and simply multiply by 2.5 … as we mentioned above, it makes your estimate easy.)
If still unsure, hedge to the short side (slow), because it’s easier to stretch, or for the copywriter to add copy, than for talent to do the impossible.
There are other variables, less significant, but still worth considering:
Variety is important. Too many words at a constant a speed, with no emotion, can be deadly boring. It can also do your text a disservice if you don’t allow time to “hit” key words and phrases. Words are often emphasized by changes in pitch, but also by “stretching” here and there … which of course takes a bit of extra time. Emotion, too, can take time. For example, people talk more quickly when they are excited, and often slow down when they are very serious and want to be extra sure you understand. And sometimes a change of pace is good for emphasis. Consider the way a motivational speaker, or someone giving a TED talk, will deliver a series of points in a rapid-fire sequence, then suddenly pause and slow down.
But beware: Done well, it’s effective. Done to excess or without reason, supposed “dramatic pauses” become make the read choppy, disconcerting and artificial, and have no drama at all.
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 “short” than “multisyllabic.”
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 negligible. (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.
Abbreviations. They 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”!)
Technically “COPD” is an “initialism,” not an “acronym.” It’s the difference between saying “CIA” vs. “FEMA.” To count initialisms more accurately, put a space between each letter (when you’re testing, NOT in the script!)
And other true abbreviations (for example, “ex.” or “CA”) should be spelled out, for two reasons:
- If the abbreviation represents two words (for example, “etc.” for “et cetera”), you’ll get a more accurate word count.
- More importantly, it will indicate more clearly what you want the talent to say. For example, does “CA” stand for California, or for Canada? Should “e.g.,” be said as “E G,” or “for example”? (And do you want the word “for” included?) And is “etc.” to be pronounced “ek setera” or “et setera”? (It should always be the latter, but many people say it wrong — one of many reasons to hire professional VO talent!)
However, in your final script, don’t add spaces to common initialisms, such as “CIA.” Whether it means “Central Intelligence Agency” or “Culinary Institute of America,” people typically say “C I A.” While encountering “C I A” (with spaces) won’t be terribly disconcerting to talent, it can be a minor distraction, and talent might wonder if somehow you don’t mean the “CIA.”
If any concern about how talent will read a word or abbreviation, include a pronunciation note to talent, above the copy.
But that’s a bit off-topic, so let’s move on …
The next step in estimating time
The Words-to-Time Calculator is just a starting point. Once your copy is the specified length, then read it aloud.
If you’re a print or Web content copywriter, not trained voice talent, don’t worry. Now that you’ve estimated the length, and made any adjustments, this is just a double-check. Are you in the right ballpark?
If you find yourself tripping over your tongue, or out of breath, then it may be still too long for comfort.
(In some genres, breaths are routinely deleted to save time and smooth the flow. That takes a bit of extra post-processing time but is worth it. In timing your read, do what talent does: Take breaths when needed (don’t try to stretch a phrase beyond what’s comfortable), and simply subtract for the time each breath requires … a second or two.
On the other hand, if you’re reading at a casual, conversational pace, and still come up short, then you may be able to reinsert a copy point that you edited or cut out.
But remember, if you are adding music and/or sound effects, they also require time for proper effect.
So far, we’ve been talking mainly about scripts that must be presented within a specific timeframe. For example, commercials, broadcast programs, and some pre-edited or animated scenarios. In other genres (for example, audio tours or audiobooks), proper speed is more a matter of just how long it takes to say the copy well, with allowance for emotion, and a variety of pacing and pauses that enable the listener to absorb what’s being said.
But there are other uses.
Another situation where the Words-to-Time Calculator is handy is when the text is many pages long. If you don’t happen to have a word processor’s character count tool handy, you can simply give our Calculator the average number of words per line, the number of lines per page, and the number of pages. Then, for each wps speed, it estimates how long the finished audio will be. Great for impressing prospective clients with a quick, reliable estimate.
Yet another use brought to our attention: 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, or for comparisons or to spot trends. But as we said, 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.
You’ll get the hang of it. Just give it time.