How to write an audio description?
What to Say First
For artworks, start simply and directly with basic information: the title of the work, the artist’s name, the medium, maybe the year it was done, maybe where it can be seen. Try to deliver the facts individually, in sequence, starting with the most important facts:
“The title of the painting is Early Sunday Morning. The artist is Edward Hopper. It’s an oil painting on canvas. It’s in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.”
Then Offer Dimensions
For paintings and sculpture, give listeners the dimensions of the work. Be specific if you know the dimensions or tell listeners if you are approximating.
“The sculpture is 18 inches tall. It stands upon a pedestal about 3 feet tall.”
“The painting is a rectangle about 3 feet wide and 2 feet high.”
Establish a Point of View
For a representational painting, describe the point of view the artist given the viewer, who is now your listener. Are we seated across a table from the subject or are we across a field?
“You see the buildings as if you’re standing across the street from them.”
For describing architecture or sculpture, it’s equally important to establish a point of view for the listener. Where are you standing as you describe? Across the street from it? At the base of it looking up? Maybe you’re sitting on a park bench in front of it.
For a sculpture, explain if you are you viewing it from one point of view, or tell the listener if you will describe it from various points around it.
As the verbal description continues, remember that you are incrementally building up an image in the mind of the listener. Each line should add to that image in an order and in sequence. And you should first tell the listener what that order will be.
“I will describe the mansion by beginning at the ground floor and moving up to the roofline.”
“The painting is primarily made up of three horizontal sections. I will begin with the upper third of the painting.”
Relate to Listener Experiences and Find Analogies
When describing sculptures, or objects and figures within paintings, make comparisons in human terms. Are they life-size? Twice life size? The width of your hand?
Sometimes the best way to verbally describe something is an analogy to something in life the listener might know or have experienced.
“It’s as big as [a car, an elephant, a soccer ball].”
“The wrought iron railing is waist high.”
“The nave of the church is a like a long rectangular box.”
“The body of the mandolin has the shape of a pear.”
“The bell tower’s three sections look like boxes piled one atop another.”
For descriptions of architecture, research to find exact dimensions like height and width of buildings, towers, windows, etc. If you can’t find that information, estimate using your body. Use your own height to estimate building height. Pace off the length of a façade and count your steps. Then multiply by the length of your pace and approximate. If there is a stairway, count the steps and include the number in your description.
Don’t hesitate to include colour in your verbal descriptions.
Refer to technique
When possible, make reference to the style and technique AND how that technique affects a viewer’s experience. For example, is the paint applied thickly and roughly or with a fine delicate line? Describe how the technique serves the artist’s creativity and the affect on the viewer.
“Cezanne was not interested in painting realistic views of his subjects. We can tell the hillside surrounding the mission is thick with nature. But he does not paint realistic trees. Instead, he used small parallel brush strokes with many colours to build up the impression of a lush woodland. And in some places he has deliberately let the off white canvas peek through, becoming an element of the landscape.”
Your Audience — Listeners
Always remember that you are writing for a listener, not a reader. A reader can re-read a word, a sentence, a paragraph. A listener does not know what’s coming next, and can’t go back and review what they just heard. If listeners don’t get it the first time, if they don’t understand each line clearly and immediately, then they may not hear the next line you write because their mind is still deciphering the previous line. The point is to never leave doubt about what you mean.
Take your ego out of it. Don’t try to impress with clever writing, complex sentence structure, and exuberant vocabulary. Put yourself in the listener’s place. He/she wants the basic information in unflowery prose. Listeners should forget about your presence and only remember the image you leave in their minds.
Keep It Simple
Verbal Description writing is writing for the ear instead of the eye, and it has basic principles that writers use when writing for any presentation that uses the spoken word
a) Use simple sentences. They’re direct and each holds a thought or image.
“The sky is blue.”
Sometimes a compound sentence is ok.
“The sky is blue and the sea below it is green.”
But never, or almost never, use a complex sentence, that is, one with a subjunctive clause. These clauses begin with words like which, that, who, while, when.
“The sky, which extends across the entire top of the painting, is blue. “
The problem is that a complex sentence asks your listener to hold the first fact in mind — while hearing about another fact until the end of the sentence — which makes a connection to the first fact. A complex sentence unnecessarily asks the brain to decipher your writing. Use two simple sentences instead.
“The sky is blue. It extends across the entire top of the painting.”
b) Use active verbs
The passive voice is weak writing whether for the eye or the ear, but it’s especially troublesome for a listener. For example,
“The boy was hit by the car”
uses the passive voice. Who did what?
“The car hit the boy.”
The passive voice can bring doubt to a listener’s mind. It asks the listener’s ear (and brain) to figure out who did what to whom by mentally inverting the information it hears. The worst examples of the passive voice use forms of the verb to be. In this example, both verbs are in the passive voice.
“Having_been_influenced by Cubism, the young artist’s work_was_reflective of its principles.”
Better to write something like this:
“Cubism influenced the young artist, and his work reflected its principles.”
c) Write like you talk
— First, that means it’s ok to use contractions. People talk with them, don’t they?
— Second, keep the vocabulary simple. Beware of the long word that is no better than the short word.
An artist doesn’t “utilise” paint. She “uses” it. Her style isn’t
Her style isn’t “referred to” as Impressionism. It’s called Impressionism.
— Third, use proper terms from art history and for techniques when appropriate. But when you do, define or explain the term simply in the next sentence.
“There are pilasters on the sides of the windows. A pilaster looks like a free standing column, but it’s a decorative element attached to the building. “
Undefined jargon can put off listeners and make you sound formal and distant. You should be talking to someone, not giving a lecture or reading a book.
The best way to find out how you sound is to read your words aloud and listen. Are you talking to someone or reading to him or her? It helps to use words like “you” and “yours” and not the stuffy and impersonal “one” or “one’s.” Read these out loud to hear the difference.
This sentence sounds like writing:
“The red flowers draw one’s attention to the lower right”
and this one sound like you are talking to someone which is better:
“The red flowers draw your attention to the lower right”
This post is based on http://www.artbeyondsight.org/mei/verbal-description-training/writing-verbal-description-for-audio-guides/
Full credits can be found here.