About how many spoken words are there in a typical 2-hour documentary?
July 4, 2020 5:33 PM   Subscribe

OK, so I know this is unanswerable as posed in the headline, so if you want to answer the question "How many spoken words are there in the documentary if we average the figure from your 3 favorite Michael Moore/Errol Morris documentaries," that's OK. I'm trying to make notes/plans for a documentary, and I'm realizing that it would be helpful to try to get a ballpark idea of how many spoken words I should shoot for in it. Is there an easy way to measure how many spoken words are in any film at all?
posted by PaulVario to Media & Arts (9 answers total)
You can get transcripts of the PBS series Nova, which should be a good comparison, depending on what style of doc you are thinking about.

Searching "Documentary Transcripts" also turns up a bunch of other resources behind various academic and library walled gardens, which you may or may not have access to.
posted by He Is Only The Imposter at 5:41 PM on July 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

You could download subtitle files to get a ballpark (but these will have extraneous words too such as timestamps and sound descriptions).
posted by mekily at 5:42 PM on July 4, 2020

Many YouTube videos have transcripts (of varying qualities) available. For example, there were about 4,000 words in a 42-minute documentary that was the first result of a search for "documentary."
posted by davcoo at 5:46 PM on July 4, 2020

Note that many times the silence is the most powerful part. The Silence.
posted by sanka at 7:29 PM on July 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

The NOVA transcripts are a fun resource. Those seem to be coming in at around 5500-6000 words for a 60-minute documentary. The ones I looked at were interview- (rather than narration-)heavy, so I'd expect subjects to be talking on the fast end of average (which, for public speaking, I've usually seen given as 150 words per minute), so that's maybe 35-40 minutes of actual speech?

So let's say NOVA, an information-dense program edited for television, averages 90-100 words per minute. That's a decent ballpark figure, but If your documentary comprises mostly scripted narration (rather than interviews), I would aim for less (and possibly quite a bit less) than that.
posted by wreckingball at 8:01 PM on July 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'd search for the subtitles for any documentaries you're interested in emulating (usually it's enough to search for the title plus "subtitles" or "srt"). Then ask another question about how to strip out the timestamp information, which is very easy but will depend on what software you're using. Then count and average as you please.
posted by trig at 11:09 PM on July 4, 2020

Try this site. Convert words to time.. I used it to calculate how long a 1500 word speech would take to read out loud.
posted by AugustWest at 12:22 AM on July 5, 2020

There's a folk rule of "1 page of script = 1 minute", but perhaps it's not all that accurate. The script format is not particularly dense, but I don't know how that translates into spoken word count per page.


You might also ask, how many words per minute in speech? While the pacing of a documentary is likely different than a podcast, here are figures anywhere from 100 (low end presentation) to 160wpm (high end radio/podcast) https://virtualspeech.com/blog/average-speaking-rate-words-per-minute
posted by the antecedent of that pronoun at 10:23 AM on July 5, 2020

Those seem to be coming in at around 5500-6000 words for a 60-minute documentary.

This accords with something I read back when 'Kill Your TV' was a movement (is it still? I dunno).

A common refrain was "but documentaries!", to which the reply was an hour long TV documentary conveyed, at most, about 10 pages of information you could read in a much shorter time - much, much shorter once you realise how much documentaries repeat themselves or pad things out with fluff.
posted by some little punk in a rocket at 8:33 PM on July 6, 2020

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