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Marking up the copy: Good to do, or bad?

Edge Studio

We hardly need to explain the process of marking copy. It’s one of the first thing everybody in VO learns, and although not everyone does it, it’s generally thought of as something everyone should do … or know how to do … to some one extent or another.

No matter how long the text, a few visual reminders are helpful. But can you take them too far? Can marking copy actually hurt your read? Yup.

At this point, you might expect us to show an example of a marked-up script. But truth be told, our website’s current content management system doesn’t support the inclusion of visuals. We’re working on that.

But you know what we mean, and our point isn’t to demonstrate copy markup symbols. Besides, everybody has their own collection of underlines, squiggles, letters, arrows, etc. to suit their needs. Unlike proofreading marks, which must be standardized so that other people can understand them, the only person who needs to understand your markup is you.

Furthermore, if your script isn’t on actual paper, your markup practices are likely to be different. If you’re able to reformat the text yourself (e.g., in Word or a PDF), you might use text symbols, punctuation, color and other available screen techniques to convey the hints. (Even the free Adobe Acrobat includes text formatting and basic drawing capabilities.) Standard punctuation symbols are also how a blind person would mark up copy in Braille text.

At Edge Studio, we rarely use paper. We have iPads available for talent and the others in the session to use. (Although sometimes talent prefer to use their own tablets, or sometimes bring in their own print-outs.) There are various apps available for “traditional” marking up on an electronic display, including iAnnotate, GoodNotes and Documents (by Readdle). In addition to accepting talent’s circles and scrawls or whatever, they enable highlighting and such, and the markup can be cleanly revised and saved.

We’ve even heard of someone using a transparent overlay to mark-up their screen … in a reversion to 1950s “interactive TV technology.” (Think Winky D**k.) Just be careful not to scroll!

So, what’s the downside?

If marking copy is the mark of a professional, how can that be wrong?

It’s wrong if – as with everything else in voice over, production and life generally – you get hung up on the tool at the expense of the message.

In general, the idea of marking up is fine. You need a crib sheet! After all, over the course of a long script, it’s virtually impossible to remember all the nuances you might have intended or been instructed to include in your delivery. Okay, yes, if you rehearse so much that you’ve virtually memorized the performance and locked it in. But that’s a path to stiffness and inflexibility. And if you pride yourself on doing cold reads (with virtually no prep, let alone a markup), that often leads to formulaic reading patterns, which can become painfully apparent over the course of a long script.

At the other extreme, if you mark up extensively or are not thoroughly familiar with your marks, you can’t be in the moment emotionally – instead of interpreting copy and genuinely expressing emotions, you’ll be hung up on those chicken scratches.

It’s a bit like the transition that occurred in movie acting when actors like Brando and Dean came on the scene. Before that, great acting was widely considered a matter of expressing emotion externally, via carefully modulated tones and gestures. After that, great acting flowed from within. The method of acting changed from mechanics to, well, the Method.

Most markup symbols relate to use of mechanical techniques (slow, fast, high, low, stretch, etc.), tools you apply externally. Okay, but leave space for internal effects to emerge (happy, sad, consoling, fear, hopeful, etc.) By all means, mark up your script. But heed these reminders.

  • Adapt your system from someone else, or devise your own markup “vocabulary,” using arrows, squiggles, vertical bars, etc. Whatever works.
  • You’ll probably find that some symbols work better than others. For example, letters are sometimes better than symbols: while recording, you might not be able to tell a Happy Face from a Frowny Face, but “H” (happy) and “S” (sad) will be pretty readable.
  • Be consistent – so that you won’t confuse this week’s “S” for Sad with last week’s “S” for Slow.
  • Be conservative. Allow yourself room for spontaneity. Don’t over-engineer. If something good happens serendipitously, or if you just forget to do something (that wasn’t important), only you will know it wasn’t planned.
  • Once you’ve settled on a system, stick with it, and practice with it, often. Become so “fluent” with it that you no longer have to actually look at your markings to interpret them, they’ll just be as second-nature as the words themselves. Then you can put your focus on the text, where it should be.

In a recent Talk Time! session, Edge Studio Managing Director Graeme Spicer made a good suggestion — If you’re working with a director, as part of your preparation before entering the booth, when you get the script simply read it “flat” repeatedly … not for “effect,” but only so that your mouth gets thoroughly familiar with voicing the words – that is, their sounds. Then you can work on the timing, emotions, hits, etc.


Because very possibly the Director will ask for a read that is very different from what you had carefully planned. Which leads to one more reminder:

    Do your markup in pencil.