Creating Captivating Subtitles: Best Practices For Writing And Formatting


Subtitles have been relevant in visual media as translation tools. But recently, they have become more prominent in short-form content and social media posts. In some instances they enhance content comprehension because of the sound-off autoplay and in others, they act as visual stimuli for the short attention span of the average social content consumer.

Captivating subtitles are legible, in sync with the content, and aesthetically aligned with the genre of the video. To make your subtitles more compelling, you must choose the right font, omit loud pauses, and avoid presenting too much text at one time.

In this article, you will learn about the best practices for writing and formatting subtitles. You will also find out why the following practices work:

  1. Differentiate Long-Form And Short-Form Subtitling

  2. Know The Role Of The Subtitles In The Specific Video

  3. Understand Size Legibility And Color Legibility

  4. Choose The Right Font For The Context

  5. Don't Break A Continuous Utterance

  6. Never Give Away The Punchline

  7. Get The Subtitle Placement Right

  8. Remove The Loud Pauses

  9. Add Emojis Where Appropriate

  10. Use Uniformity Or Contrast But Be Context-Appropriate

  11. Keep Line Breaks Relatively Uniform

  12. Do Not Cram Too Much In A Single Line

  13. Mind The Duration Of A Line's Visibility (21 Characters Per Second Rule)

  14. Don't Exceed Two Lines At A Time

  15. Review The Subtitles Before The Final Render


15 Best Practices For Captivating Subtitles

The immutable rule of captioning is that the subtitles must be easily legible. Everything else is just an attempt to make subtitles easier to consume. In this section, you will find out more about the 15 practices for subtitling and captioning that can take your content engagement to the next level.


Differentiate Long-Form And Short-Form Subtitling

One of the most common mistakes that content creators make is maintaining uniform subtitles across different types of media. Movie subtitles are different from Instagram Reels subtitles. In long-form media, subtitles are sentence-long, while in short-form content, they are instance-long.

"How was the weather in Tahiti?" would appear at once as a movie subtitle. It would also appear at once in a standard youtube video. But in a reel or a Tiktok, it would appear as follows:

  1. "How was the weather..." would appear at first.

  2. " Tahiti" would follow right after.

In short-form content, the words are larger and appear in smaller clusters. In long-form content, subtitles have a smaller size and appear in longer sentences. All the differences between short and long-form content subtitles come down to the role of subtitles in the video.


Know The Role Of The Subtitles In The Specific Video

If you know the primary functions of subtitles in a specific video, then you can make design, placement, and text choices accordingly. In long-form content, subtitles are meant to aid dialog comprehension. In foreign language films, they translate the dialog. In both cases, the subtitles cannot overshadow the content.

In short videos, subtitles are a visual aspect that stimulates the short attention span of the viewers. It also engages them by giving them smaller clusters of words to read along. The rapidly changing text and the need to read it before it switches can induce engagement in this context.

Once you understand that subtitles are a visual stimulus in short clips and a comprehension aid in long ones, you can see why reels have more prominent subtitles. You can also understand why subtitles are at the bottom of the screen in a movie but are in the middle of shorts trimmed from the same film.


Understand Size Legibility And Color Legibility

Regardless of whether the subtitles are in a short video or a long one, they are supposed to be legible enough to do their job. That means you must size the text appropriately and must choose the right colors to avoid readability issues.

In short videos, the text size can be unconventionally large. But in long videos, there is a cap on how big the subtitles can be. They must not interfere with the visual elements of the long video, so you must pay extra attention to the color and the letter weight of the font.


Choose The Right Font For The Context

Font selection is one of the most critical aspects of subtitling. If you make a mistake when choosing the font, you might not be able to offset it with size and color. A font's weight, as well as its cohesion with the type of content it is on, can make or break the final result.

If a font is funky, then it is better suited for podcast clips than academic lectures. And if it is traditional-looking, then it might not be the best to put over a prank video.

You have to consider the following aspects of a font before you greenlight it for your content:

  1. Font aesthetic - What mood does the font inspire if it is on a neutral video? Is it traditional, contemporary, tech-forward, or funny? Make sure the mood it inspires aligns with the mood of your video.

  2. Font weight - The smaller the subtitles have to be, the more important it becomes for the font to have decent weight. The glyphs must have enough weight to be visible but should not be so thick that they are not readable.

  3. Font license - It is important that you have the license of the font you use for your subtitles. This is especially true if your content includes an ad or is used for commercial purposes. Google Fonts can be used commercially. If you use a free font database, make sure to filter out fonts that aren't free for commercial use.

  4. Font availability - Finally, you must consider the availability of the font. You don't want the font to be so widely available that everyone uses it all the time. The more unique your font choice, the more memorable and recognizable your content. But in pursuing a font that isn't easily available, you shouldn't pick one that you can't find on popular content editors. ContentFries allows custom font uploads so this isn't a problem for creators who use our program for their subtitles.


Don't Break A Continuous Utterance

After font selection, most of the subtitling best practices deal with word clustering. If everything a character is supposed to say in a sentence is laid out as soon as he opens his mouth, viewers can find out what he is about to say before he says it. That's why it is best to cluster just enough words at a time to keep the reader in sync with the speaker.

When clustering word groups for subtitles, make sure never to break continuous utterances. If the speaker says, "I'm doing very well," but the font size doesn't allow the entire sentence to fit, don't break "very" and "well."

The following break is awkward:

  1. "I'm doing very"

  2. "...well."

The following break is not awkward:

  1. "I'm doing"

  2. "very well."


Never Give Away The Punchline

Breaking a word group that is supposed to appear together is neglectful. But not breaking a sentence to maintain suspense is criminal. Your subtitles must never give away the punchline before the speaker utters it. You can break all rules of subtitling to preserve the punchline and suspense.

Consider the following sentence:

"I was scared for my life, but I was just overthinking."

At least during the period in which the speaker says, "I was scared for my life", the viewers shouldn't know that he was overthinking. Whenever the ending of a sentence spoils its beginning, it shouldn't appear at the same time as the beginning. Adhering to this practice will improve your content's engagement.


Get The Subtitle Placement Right

Subtitles are never on the top of the screen. They are usually in the middle or at the bottom. When the subtitles don't have a visual role, they can be at the bottom. If your subtitles are meant to draw the viewer into the video, then they should be appealing, prominent, and in the middle.

Reels, TikTok, and Youtube Shorts subtitles are usually in the middle, while Facebook Watch, standard Youtube, and movie subtitles are at the bottom. Putting subtitles in the middle of long-form content can make the content exhausting to follow. And placing subtitles at the bottom of a short video leads to the subtitles getting ignored.


Remove The Loud Pauses

If you use auto-generated captioning, you will notice that loud pauses, including "umm" and "uhhh", are transcribed as well. Advanced captioning engines are intelligent enough to remove loud pauses. But most audio-to-text captioning engines include loud pauses in their results. Whether you use auto-captioning or type out your subtitles manually, you must omit the loud pauses from the final results.


Add Emojis Where Appropriate

Emojis in subtitles are a recent phenomenon. They are absent from long-form content subtitles but are very common in short clips. You can add emojis in your short-form content subtitles as long as you don't overuse them. On average, one emoji every two sentences is the right frequency. Using more than one emoji per sentence can produce emoji fatigue. Emojis lose their potency when they are overused.


Use Uniformity Or Contrast But Be Context-Appropriate

Playing with contrast is something many content creators skip. You can use multiple fonts for a single video's subtitles. The subtitles don't all need to be the same size. You can add different effects to different word clusters.

Ultimately, you can do anything with the subtitles as long as the subtitles get to do their job. This goes back to knowing the role of subtitles.

If the subtitles are meant to help viewers comprehend the dialogue without interfering with the visuals, then you should use uniformity. On the other hand, if the subtitles are meant to draw the viewers in by acting as visual stimuli, then you should use contrast to make the stimulus more catchy.

Here are a few kinds of contrasts that can help draw people in:

  • Color contrast - This can be used to signify two different speakers. Make sure that both colors are legible, though.

  • Size contrast - The size of the subtitles can change with the speaking volume of the characters. This can create a sense of synchronization.

  • Placement contrast - Placement contrast can be used to differentiate between narration and dialogue.

  • Animation contrast - In fast-paced short-form content, you can animate certain word clusters to draw more attention to them.


Keep line breaks relatively uniform

While contrast can be used to emphasize certain clusters, your line breaks should have a rhythmic quality.

Consider the following example:

  1. "I was very tired of working..."

  2. " I decided to quit that day."

In it, the lines are pretty close to each other in length. The viewer might not even notice that the line length is relatively uniform, but he will have an easier time following. When line breaks are even, the subtitle reading pace can stay the same.

Now think about the effect of breaking up the same dialogue as follows:

  1. I was

  2. tired of working so

  3. I decided to

  4. quit that

  5. day.

The clustering above is jarring because the viewer has to set a reading pace with every new set of words that appears on the screen. Reading subtitles should not require effort. And if subtitle comprehension requires serious concentration, then the viewer is disengaged from the video and focused on the text only.


Do Not Cram Too Much In A Single Line

Even breaks and uniform clustering can help make subtitles easy to read. But that does not mean one can create uniform word clusters of 90 words.

If you cram too much into a single line, the viewer has to start reading the subtitles like a book. Since people don't watch videos to read, this can increase the skip rate and reduce the watch time of your content.

How much can you put into a single line, though? Generally, you should put one sentence at a time on the screen in long-form subtitles and 25% to 50% of a sentence at a time on the screen for short-form content. It always helps to play the video with the subtitles and see if it is easy to comprehend the captions in real-time.


Mind The Duration Of A Line's Visibility

When it comes to ease of comprehension, you should consider more than the number of characters that appear on the screen at a time. You must also consider how long they stay on the screen. On average, there should be 21 characters per second on the screen. If a subtitle stays on for 3 seconds, it should have no more than 63 characters.

Adjusting the duration of your subtitles so that they are paced to be read at 21 characters per second can help you ensure readability. Some creators cram more text in their videos just to force replays. This doesn't seem like an evergreen strategy.


Don't Exceed Two Lines At A Time

You must be mindful of the two lines at a time ceiling. A content format exists where an inspirational quote is overlayed over stock footage. In that format, a paragraph of text is superimposed over the footage, and the viewer is essentially a reader.

Subtitles are different from standard superimposed text because they convey what's being said. They must appear and vanish in sync with the speakers. The two-line ceiling ensures that you don't turn your video into a paragraph-over-footage type video.

Even though your content captions can have two lines at a time, you should stick to one line per instance to maximize engagement. Very few people are happy with two lines of text while consuming content.


Review The Subtitles Before The Final Render

It is highly recommended to double-check your content before you render it. This is true for content editing, sound mixing, and captioning. In all aspects of content creation and packaging, the final result can be different from your vision. In the context of captions, the subtitles might be out of sync, poorly clustered, or not visible for a long enough period.

The pre-render playback allows you to consume your own content as a fresh viewer. It helps to take a break before the final playback. Going back to your content with fresh eyes, you can spot syncing errors, font legibility issues, and other areas that need optimization.

After you've tweaked the subtitles according to the notes you've made in the final playback, you should render the video. Do not get into the cycle of overcorrection and polishing, as it can lead to perfection-driven paralysis. And when it comes to content, volume beats everything else in the long run.


Final Thoughts

Captivating subtitles are broken down into smaller clusters that are easy to follow. You can improve the comprehension of your content's subtitles by choosing the right font, using a legible size, and pacing the subtitles to appear at the rate of 21 characters per second. Use the 15 best practices covered in this article as a caption-optimizing checklist, and you'll find a significant improvement in your videos' engagement. And if you want to skip the effort and pick tried and tested caption templates, try ContentFries.