Video producers don’t need to be good writers because they only need to communicate visually, right? Wrong. Successful content creators need to be competent communicators with both the written word and the camera.

In this article, we’ll explore how to write a script for an instructional video destined for YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitch or other platforms. This critical pre-production phase of any video is essentially a writing project. 

What’s the objective?

There’s an important step to complete before beginning a script — determining the learning objectives. Instructional designers rely on precisely crafted learning objectives to guide their productions. Objectives are student-focused and written in terms of what a student can expect to accomplish after completing the instruction.

Here are three examples. After viewing the video, students will be able to cook a nutritious vegan meal in one pot while backpacking. Or, students will be able to replace the spark plugs on a 4-cylinder car engine. Or, students will be able to create a sharable form using Google Docs.

A mechanic’s tutorial video will have lots of b-roll showing how the parts go together. Your video may look different depending on your learning objective.

Some video instruction might have just one learning objective, others could have several. Sometimes learning objectives are really specific, others are more general. Therefore, it just depends on the topic and length of the video. Everything in the video should build the learner’s skills toward accomplishing the learning objective.

Who’s the target audience?

In any form of communication, it is critical to consider the characteristics of the audience  — referred to as demographics. These characteristics might include age, gender identity, ethnicity, educational level, political affiliation, and many more. These are the same audience attributes advertisers use to guide them when making choices about where to place ads.

I bet you use different words when talking to your grandmother as opposed to your same-age BFF. Similarly, you need to know the specifics of the learners you expect to complete the instruction. For example, you want to make sure the words, music, hosts and announcers are appropriate for the audience.

For instance, say you are going to teach teenagers how to properly set up a skateboard. It would probably be better to choose current popular music, as opposed to 1970s classic rock. Or what if the goal is to instruct young mothers how to install a child seat in a car? It would probably be best to use a host with demographics similar to the intended audience.

Scripting basics

After determining the learning objectives, and characteristics of the intended audience, it’s now time to write the script. A two-column script is a common format used for instructional video. 

This script divides the visual and audio aspects of the production into left and right columns. Horizontal lines — typically produced by a word processing table — separate the shots, or scenes, of the production. Synchronize the content of the columns so the dialogue in the right column matches the shots described in the left.

In the left-hand video column, describe in words what the scene looks like visually. Specify things like “a wide shot of a classroom” or “a closeup of a teacher at a whiteboard.” This is also the place to describe titles or other text that appears onscreen and description of visual effects like “split screen,” “fade to black” or “superimposition.”

Reserve the right-hand column for information about the audio aspects of the production: dialogue, music and sound effects. For dialogue, indicate who is speaking and the dialogue they will deliver. Describe music and its relative loudness level, and how it might fade out at the end. Describe any sound effects, like “birds chirping” or “slamming door.”

It turns out that there are variations in the style and formatting of scripts from writer to writer. If someone unfamiliar with the project was given the script, would they be able to produce a video that’s true to your vision? That’s the real test of a script. If so, the script has done its job.

The two column script format is common in video production. The format makes it easier to connect the audio and video elements.

Software tools

It’s possible to write a script with software like Microsoft Word, Pages or Google Docs, but specialized software makes it easier. There are some free scriptwriting tools available, most also have a paid version with advanced features. 

Four examples of free software include Writerduet (web-based), Trelby (Windows, Linux), Causality (Mac, Windows, Linux) and Highland 2 (Mac). 

Many pros use Final Draft scriptwriting software; it’s been around since 1990. There’s an iPad/iPhone version for $9.99, or the full version for $199.99 (Mac, Windows) with student discounts ($99.99) and a 30 day free trial.

Final tips

Have your computer speak your work verbally. You’ll be able to hear mistakes that are sometimes overlooked when you read your own work. Look for the text-to-speech feature in your computer’s operating system. 

Make sure that all the content you’ve included in your script directly supports the accomplishment of the learning objectives. So, remove any content that is extraneous to that goal.

First drafts are rarely dazzling. Use good time management so you can take breaks. For example, you’ll come back with fresh mind hours — or better yet a few days — later.

Maybe you can’t write a brilliant opening scene first, it’s OK. There is no need to start at the beginning. Start wherever you can. Just get started!

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