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Top 5 Subtitle Writing Mistakes

Top 5 Subtitle Writing Mistakes

For those unfamiliar with the industry, thinking about subtitle creation, there is often an assumption that the process is incredibly simple. There should just be a transcript which simply gets uploaded to software, where timings are quickly created and sentences split automatically, right? Wrong.

At Capital Captions, we believe the human element of subtitle writing is incredibly important in delivering video readers the same experience as listeners. The reality of subtitle and closed caption writing is not quite so straightforward as many would believe. As any frequent subtitle or closed caption users know, there can be enormous differences between the onscreen text quality of different broadcasters, channels, vloggers and video service providers. This blog is about where closed caption and subtitle writers (and software) can go wrong, and covers the top five subtitle writing mistakes. 

  1. Subtitle lines too long.

The length of subtitles is one of the first things that subtitle writers new to the industry consider. Some guidelines set out as little as 16 characters per line, whereas others increase to up to a maximum of around 55. There are two issues with onscreen text lines being too long.

The first (and most serious issue as a consequence) is that having lines which are too long can result in the subtitle not fitting and hence, not all text being visible.

The second issue relates to flow. Video is all about motion and movement. Having subtitles that stay onscreen for 15 seconds as they are so long can detract from the motion and smooth flow of a video, effectively leaving the viewer frustrated, bored and waiting for the next line to arrive.

  1. Subtitles too short.

This is one of the biggest subtitle writing mistakes. It’s an issue that is pretty well documented and that professional onscreen text editors are trained to look out for. It takes humans longer to read than it does to speak. When creating very short subtitle lines, often the line in question is displayed two seconds or even less! 

This doesn’t give viewers enough time to read the subtitle, leaving them feeling frustrated and ‘in the dark’. This is an issue for all subtitle and closed caption viewers, but can be especially difficult for deaf viewers as they are also unable to effectively assess by voice tone, etc, whether the information missed was important. 

  1. Subtitle lines created and edited solely on sentence structure.

This one is a little more complex. When writing subtitles, a transcriptionist will take down all dialogue, but a good subtitler needs to take into account not only sentence structure but also pauses, natural gaps in dialogue and the overall flow of a video. Consider the below sentence written as a subtitle for an arts and craft show.

00:01:58,311 –> 00:02:09,703
For your painting, you will need paint,
boxed canvas, a paint brush, an

00:02:09,754 –> 00:02:13,494
old rag and a cup of water.

Looks good, right? On paper, yes. But when you watch the video, there are large gaps between the list of equipment required where they are presented to the viewer.

This means that the pace the viewer’s reading experience is entirely out of sync with their visual one. They are left waiting as each item is presented and the flow of the film is somewhat interrupted.

A well written subtitle of the same video should display as follows:

00:01:58,311 –> 00:02:02,203
For your painting, you will need:

00:02:02,238 –> 00:02:04,319

00:02:04,354 –> 00:02:06,494
a boxed canvas,

00:02:06,499 –> 00:02:08,671
a paint brush,

00:02:08,827 –> 00:02:10,997
an old rag

00:02:11,012 –> 00:02:13,494
and a cup of water.

  1. Subtitle text not optimally written and edited.

Subtitles should be written to match as closely as possible to video speech, but they should not be word perfect. In speech, there are fillers, repetitions and slurs, not to mention mispronunciations and those dreaded ‘ers, ums and ahs’.

Subtitles should be easy for viewers to read. As listeners, we are accustomed (almost trained) to hearing ‘you know, kind of, sort of, etc,’ constantly babbled through spoken language but when it comes to writing, those fillers are not included. So if onscreen text is littered with these, the writing doesn’t flow. It becomes distracting, the message gets lost, and the viewer is left confused and irritated.

  1. Lazy subtitle line splitting.

This one can happen where a subtitlist is avoiding too many time insertions (to save time and effort) but more often occurs when a transcript is uploaded to software either by the video producers (or even by a subtitle company) or otherwise via social media sharing sites such as YouTube or Facebook. By using automation software, timings are automatically placed based on voice recognition and mathematical speech assumptions. The result is often something like the cookery show subtitle shown below:

00:03:26,025 –> 00:03:27,926
So let’s begin. Grab a bowl. Pour in your flour.
Next, two teaspoons of sugar to the

00:03:27,961 –> 00:03:30,245
mix. Now, make a well. Break your egg in
in the centre. Then grab a whisk mix it

00:03:30,280 –> 00:03:31,931
all together. Be careful. Try not to let
the mixture curdle.

The problem with automation software and/or lazily structured captions is that timings and sentence structures often display like this and don’t take into account that sentences should be split in a way that creates subtitles that are both easier to read, flow with the video and are more pleasing to the eye.

So that’s it, the top five subtitle writing mistakes.

At Capital Captions, we want to provide the best possible captioning services for our clients, customers and viewers of content across the world. Subtitles and closed caption quality desperately needs to be improved and the best way to do that is through thoughtful rather than mechanical subtitle writing.

If you have any other suggestions on what makes a good quality subtitle, let us know and we will publish your advice and use the feedback and information to optimise and improve our own subtitle services.

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