Ten tips on writing scripts for audio recordings

Our latest post is by John Hughes. If you attended his session at the MaWSIG PCE in Manchester, you’ll enjoy this recap and extension. If you didn’t see it, this is a must-read.


Ten tips on writing scripts for audio recordings

by John Hughes



Many teachers write dialogues for use in their ELT classrooms, and ELT materials writers have to produce listening scripts for published courses that are then recorded with actors in recording studios. There’s a wide range of script types to be written; from monologues (or presentations) with one speaker, to dialogues between two people (who might be in a shop or at a café), to more extensive conversations between three or more people (who could be holding a formal business meeting or agreeing and disagreeing about a hot topic).

Whatever type of script you are writing for audio, most will follow some basic principles. For example, here’s the first part of a script which was written to accompany some material on the topic of gossip, which included work on adjectives for describing people (e.g. handsome, dark-haired). It has been prepared for use with actors in a recording studio.

Audio 4.2
[Two people in a café. A man and woman in their thirties or forties. The man has a Spanish accent. The woman is Australian. Sound of the café and people talking the background.]
Alex: Mmm, this coffee’s excellent. Nearly as good as in Spain.
Rose: [Laughs] Nearly! Hey, isn’t that Tracey over there? Who’s she with? He’s very handsome.
Alex: Where? I can’t see her.
Rose: In the corner. With the dark-haired guy …

Note that the script is following certain principles and guidelines that apply to most audio scripts and that are useful things to bear in mind when writing similar types of dialogues. Let’s consider what they are:

1. Including target language

People often say that we should use more authentic recordings in ELT materials and that it isn’t necessary to write so many dialogues. I agree that using authentic recordings is great for developing listening skills, but sometimes the main purpose of the audio is to present a target language point (e.g. a vocabulary item, a grammar point or a feature of pronunciation). That’s really the reason why we still script so many of our dialogues – to present target language.

2. Adding context

One challenge for students to listening to a recorded script is that – without video – they have little or no context at the beginning. So, ideally, introduce a context near the beginning; for example, one speaker can start the dialogue off with something like ‘The conference is busier than last year.’ or ‘Have you been to this conference before?

3. Sound effects

With scripts that are going to be recorded, indicate sound effects on your script that can be added. These will help to add a context (see previous tip) and provide a sense of authenticity. So, for example, if the conversation was a tourist asking for directions, it probably takes place in the street. So, I might write this in square brackets: [Street noise with one or two passing vehicles], to indicate it is information for the editor and studio producer.

4. Turn-taking

If a dialogue includes one person talking for a long time, it makes it harder to follow. So when writing conversations between two or three people, as a general rule, keep each turn short. If one speaker is providing a lot of information, then let the other speaker interrupt from time to time, ask questions or even show they are listening with phrases like ‘I seeor Sure‘.) This will help the listener and it’s probably more authentic in many situations.

5. Numbers of speakers

When a script is for audio, limit the number of speakers to make it manageable. If you need to have more than two people, then three speakers are fine if you make their voices distinctly different, but four or more becomes confusing. If you really need a lot of speakers then the script might be better suited to video.

6. Gender

Mixing the genders in your scripts is not only ‘fair’, but it also makes listening easier. If I have two speakers, I normally make them a man and a woman. With three speakers, definitely avoid a conversation where all the speakers are either all men or all women.

7. Naming the speakers

Many scripts call speakers A, B or C. This is OK for short mechanical scripts with the purpose of being for a listen-and-repeat exercise, for example. However, giving the speakers real names adds authenticity and is invaluable for longer scripts where students might need to note who said what.

8. Character notes

As well as providing names, actors in a recording studio will also appreciate any information you can give them about the speakers’ characters. Are they in their early twenties, or middle-aged? Do they sound excited or bored? What is the relationship between the speakers?

9. Accent

Using different accents is another way to make it clearer who is speaking, but – more importantly – it reflects the use of English as a form of international communication and exposes students to a range of voices.

10. Adding features of real speech

Features of real speech include things like fillers (well, err, umm), and false starts (what I mean, what I mean to say is). You can add these in to scripts to increase a feeling of authenticity but don’t overload them to the point where they distort the conversation or take over from the script’s real purpose. Also note that, if you are writing a script for a publication, it will be recorded in a studio with real actors who will read your script word for word. Don’t assume that they will add in features of real speech – they won’t. They’ll read it exactly how it’s written.


John Hughes is a materials writer and one of the lead authors on a number of coursebook series including Life (National Geographic Learning) and Business Result (Oxford University Press). He also provides training to teachers and schools on how to write ELT materials and has recently published an ebook, How to write audio and video scripts (eltteacher2writer.co.uk). His blog is www.elteachertrainer.com.

© John Hughes ELT Ltd 2015

2 thoughts on “Ten tips on writing scripts for audio recordings

  1. Hi John
    Thanks for this great post. I wanted to add that, in my view, a script turns out better if the writer considers ALL these points while writing, rather than hoping the editor will sort some of them out at the end. It makes the writer think about the characters more and whether the script will really work in the studio.
    When editing a writer’s work, I’ve sometimes had to decide myself who these characters are, how old they are, and in my mind that’s wrong. It’s like sending me an exercise without the answer key – how does the writer know it works? But don’t get me started on answer keys …

  2. Agreed Lyn. And when working with film-makers they stress how much better ELT audio and especially video scripts would be if more attempt were made at really providing detailed character notes in order to make the script more interesting. Having said all that, I also think a lot of these issues arise because of poor briefing at the outset where no one is 100% clear who is responsible for what. Briefs and expectations from publisher to publisher and editor to editor will vary so writers tend to write according to what happened on their last project. All writing projects need a session at the beginning which thoroughly outlines ‘ways of working’ to iron out all of these things. For example, I’ve worked on projects where I’ve been told not to bother with answer keys (since you raised the subject) as these will be dealt with in-house later in the process. So of course you then start your next project and assume it’ll be the same only to find it isn’t….sorry gone off on a tangent but never mind 😉

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