Your job as a voice over artist is to bring the words on the page to life. VO coaches like myself are constantly banging on about owning words and breathing life into them.
But what if those words don't read well or, worse still, they don't make much sense?
Should you rewrite them to make them easier to say?
One of my students recently asked my advice on this very question; "I am a bit of a stickler for grammar" he said. "I often cringe at adverts that have bad grammar in them... how much of an issue would it be to have a little talk with the director and/or client? Is it the done thing, or should I just let it go?"
A good question.
Likewise I once trained someone who remarked that he shuddered at the incorrect use of prepositions.
What particularly irked him were sentences that ended in a preposition such as 'in', 'on' or 'to'. For example:
"It is the best film he has starred in."
"Who was she talking to?"
But to write these according to strict grammatical rules, we would have to say:
"It is the best film in which he has starred"
"To whom was she talking?"
I certainly would not want to read these out loud myself and to be honest the technically correct sentences would probably only work if you were recording an audiobook in ye olde English. Fine for Jane Austen, but not a 21st century corporate.
In my opinion that is where the problem lies; how strict should you be when it comes to grammar?
Are we referring back to the Latin roots as with the stranded prepositions above, or is it just a case of making the text read well in Standard English?
Most of us would probably opt for the latter, but here too there are problems.
English is a living language. New words come in all the time ('podcast' and 'app' are just two recent additions that did not even exist a few years ago) and the way we say sentences is constantly evolving.
Just the other day I was recording a voice over for a high end technology company when I spotted a grammatical error:
"There's 3 big issues" it said on the script. Hmmm, I thought, should I quietly change that to "they're 3 big issues" and see if the director notices? I didn't.
Instead I stuck to the script and it kind of worked.
The reason it was ok was because it sounded fine when spoken - it was conversational. If the script had said "there is 3 big issues" it most certainly would have jarred on the listener (and on me), but the contraction to 'there's' helped smooth out the imperfection.
And that is the point.
Voice overs are said not read; in other words the way we speak in everyday life does not necessarily reflect what we write.
This is the nub of the argument.
If you start pointing out errors to clients, they may not agree. "That's how the audience speaks nowadays" is a perfectly legitimate riposte to your pedantry.
However there are occasions when you may make a few suggestions.
Firstly contractions are usually acceptable. 'We are' can be reduced to 'we're' and 'they are' to 'they're' and 'it is' to 'it's' etc. If the client queries why you are doing this, just say that it will make the piece sound more natural and flow better.... which it will.
Secondly most clients are grateful when you point out glaring errors such as missing words, or obvious typos.
There are also times when the copywriter does not have English as a first language and really appreciates a little help from the voice over artist.
Colloquialisms are a common stumbling block and I once came across a script where my Latvian customer had written "you can take this as Bible."
Without flagging up the error, I quietly substituted the word 'gospel' for 'Bible'. I never heard anything back from the director so I am sure he appreciated the amendment.
Are there times when you should never change the script?
Yes, there are and audiobooks are a classic example. If you start fiddling around with the author's carefully crafted prose, you are not going to be very popular. It would be like a pianist saying that Beethoven had not written his Moonlight Sonata correctly and making suggestions to the conductor on where to alter the notes.
Your role is to interpret the text the best way you can, not rewrite it.
As a voice actor you are equivalent to a musician in the orchestra contributing your part to the whole symphony.
Also bear in mind that some scripts are highly specific to that industry. Marketing and creative types are renowned for their eccentric jargon.
You may think that a phrase could be better said in plain English, but a 'paradigm shift towards an omnichannel value add' may be exactly how the writer wanted it said.
Sometimes biting your lip and swallowing your pedantic pride is the only way to handle it.
Have you ever had a script you wanted to amend? What did you do? Please let me know in the comments below.
Gary Terzza is a British voice over coach