Some tips for Blind Audio Description writers

Before I worked in the audio description industry and joined an audio description collective, I consumed audio description daily.

For those not familiar with audio description, it’s painting a picture with words for those that are unable to look at a screen, including Blind and visually impaired people.

There are many samples you can watch to get a sense of how audio description works. It’s painting a picture between natural pauses in the soundtrack of a production. It’s also great for podcasts and radio listeners, too. Audio description can benefit so many people, including sighted people that are unable to look at a screen because they are busy or because they are listening to an audio only podcast.

Audio description is very different from closed captioning. It’s an art as well as a science. It isn’t just about interpreting what someone sees, it’s crafting a visual interpretation to go along with the ebb and flow of the scene as well as the whole production. Up until now, Blind and visually impaired people rarely had opportunities to shape and craft audio description. That’s changing.

Blind and visually impaired people are audio description narrators, engineers, Quality Control specialists, people that are basically script editors that make sure the script makes sense to the intended audience, and writers. Blind and visually impaired people are getting involved in the making of audio description. I’m here to talk about some tips I’ve learned as a Blind audio description writer.

For a brief rundown of my audio description work, check out my work with Social Audio Description or see my work on other films and TV shows including those found on popular streaming services.

The AD tools I use.

I use all of the below tools when crafting audio description scripts.

  • Google Sheets, mainly because it can export to CSV beautifully so I can open it in my text editor of choice for editing or writing.
  • CADET for timing the AD in points and exit points. I don’t write with this program but I do take notes with this. Instead of writing the AD, I put notes about what to describe with timecodes.
  • Notepad++, for writing the actual AD script after timecodes have been created in another program.
  • describealign for testing out AD audio files with video.
  • Some Python scripts to convert scripts into many formats at once to convert many subtitle files to CSV and other formats so I can share them with my team.
  • Convert captions to plain text. Useful if someone just wants the text and no timecodes.
  • Open Together Tube for watching videos with other people at the same time, remotely.
  • WordHippo for looking for similar words or definitions.

The AD writing process

My process for writing audio description is very involved. I first watch the production several times taking copious amounts of notes on sounds I hear as well as key sounds conveyed by the production. Key sounds could include music tempo, noticeable background sounds, the cadence of the music for a particular scene, and more. If a script is available, I read the full script before watching the production.

I use CADET to insert timestamps into the script. I take notes with this program by inserting notes to myself on how to describe and what to describe in the spaces where it wants me to put a description. I don’t write my AD in this program because I love working with lightweight text editors and this app is way to bloated to do any writing, but it’s fantastic for exporting and importing files.

You can actually use any captioning software to create the AD timecodes, I just haven’t found a plain text oriented program that works with keyboard commands, and is screen reader friendly, and exports to text based formats other than CADET.

None of these subtitle editors are fully accessible to the blind that I’ve tried so I use Cadet to make the timecodes.

Once I have my timecodes and notes, I export it to a plain text file and an SRT file, something that can work with my favorite text editor.

After I have my AD script in a timestamped text file, I then utilize sighted assistants to tell me various clues about the indicated scene. Because my script is already in aSRT or text file, no conversion needed. Just write, and save, as I go.

I then convert that plain text file or SRT to a CSV file.

When writing, I always pull from a diverse roster of assistants I handpicked for this particular task. These people are different races, genders, sexualities, and otherwise. It’s important for me to get at least four differing perspectives on a scene or production. I’ll sometimes use Aira when none of my assistants are available, but I lean on my assistants first. They know me better. They know, generally, what I’m looking for and they have a more general idea of how I’m going to ask the dozens upon dozens of questions I’ve prepared ahead of time.

I ask my assistants these questions I’ve crafted based on the sounds I hear, the accents I hear, the background noises I hear, and otherwise. I don’t let just any random person be my audio description assistant. I want my audio description assistants to have some key skills in place before I begin.

Some of my criteria for audio description assistants are,

They have to read a lot. This helps with explaining what they mean if something is unclear. They don’t need to be writers in order to internalize how to drill down and describe a scene. As people read books, they pick up phrases and that helps them expand upon concepts and descriptions.

They need to know film terms. I like using film terms in my audio description and I want someone that knows what a cut is, and I want someone that knows what a fade in is versus a cut to a scene.

They need to work in the fashion industry or at least love fashion. I want someone that can tell me the difference between a floral print dress versus a knee-high skirt.

For watching these videos simultaneously, syncing up videos, I use two methods. I use Open Together Tube or I use Zoom’s share feature. I use Media Player Classic to get timestamps for videos. If MPC isn’t working for any reason, I will switch to VLC Media Player.

I write all my scripts in the CSV format or a plain text file or an SRT file in my favorite text editor of choice. Depending on the scope of the project I’ll upload that text file to Google sheets and share it so people can download the sheet in their format of choice.

After all the questions are answered to my satisfaction, I’ll sometimes call Aira if I want to have an outside opinion, but usually, my team at Social Audio Description is more than willing to jump in to be that one outside pair of eyes, to ensure my notes align with someone that isn’t close to the production.

My team at Social Audio Description is also more than willing to be my audio description assistants for SADC projects when my usual roster is in short supply.

I keep track of this word of the day RSS feed and use WordHippo if I want to find a similar word

After all notes are complete, I then just write the audio description script. That’s it. There’s nothing more to it. My writing background helps a lot with this task. It sure does come in handy when I need to reach for a verb or an adjective that’s one syllable.

Even though my writing background helps me immensely with this task there are several things I’ve had to learn as an audio description writer. I’d like to lay down some tips and tricks I’ve learned in the hopes that these tips and tricks help you in the future.

Some extra tips and resources

Read your audio description script out loud.

I’ve done this a few times before sending it off to the narrator. I’ve read my own scripts out loud to myself several times to ensure the timing fits.

Sometimes, one word is better than two.

If possible, and if you’re crunched for time, one word that appears to be a longer word might fit better than the two shorter words you were initially going for.

Don’t try to imagine your narrator.

When I was starting out, I’d keep trying to envision the narrator before writing. I’d imagine a narrator’s voice before even beginning to write and that left me thinking I should write less because I believed my imaginary narrator would speak slowly. Try not to worry about the narrator. It isn’t your job to worry about how the narrator will sound. Be cognizant of the complicated words you’re giving them, but they have their own part to play. You should write to your satisfaction first. If adjustments need to be made later based on the narrator, that’s far easier to do than adding to your script because you were imagining a narrator and not writing enough.

Don’t be afraid to use a thesaurus.

I use many tools at my disposal. I have a Word of the Day alert sent to me every morning through my smart speakers. My biggest tool when reaching for a word is an online tool called WordHippo. It helps in my fiction writing too. WordHippo takes some getting used to with a screen reader but it’s well worth it. I love this tool and use it daily to craft my writing.

Don’t try to hide your writing voice.

People will try to tell you that audio description shouldn’t be novelized or subjective. Films and other kinds of art will never be objective, so why should you try and hide your writing voice? Of course, audio description isn’t a novel, but don’t be afraid to inject some of your personality into your audio description scripts. If you want to novelize by using adjectives like beseechingly, angrily, furiously, ghastly, go for it. Your goal isn’t to please everybody. your goal is to provide audio description that’s true to you. You’re providing a service, yes, but your script is your script, and people are free to like it or hate it. Diversity in audio description is never a bad thing. Obviously, remember who you’re providing a service for, though. This service isn’t for you exclusively. It’s for your Blind and visually impaired audience but you can make your scripts your own way. People are free to have their beloved audio description writers and their most hated. That’s what advances conversations. Advancing dialog is always a good thing.

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