How to write Subtitles: Some Tips To do It Properly

rules to create subtitles

How to write Subtitles: Some Tips To do It Properly


In recent years, websites like Youtube, Ted and Vimeo and other platforms for watching streaming TV series nearly at the same time all over the world, it is virtually impossible not to run into subtitled videos. But how to write subtitles?

If you’re an avid video watcher you might have noticed that, beside many proper subtitling translation, many others are not. There are many reasons why subtitles can be hard to read and may result unsatisfying from the user’s point of view.

I’m thinking actually of those that go on too fast and disappear before you’ve even finished reading. Or rather, the ones written in the same color of the background and that for this reason are not well-visible. Otherwise, the incomplete ones that sometimes don’t allow a full comprehension of what’s going on.

In all the above cases, subtitles loose most of their function of making comprehension easier. On the contrary, if reading them turns too difficult the result may be to distract our attention to the point that we even stop enjoying the images passing on the screen.

So, how to write subtitles?

Which are the main features of a good subtitling?


Here’s a list of some of them:

  • Readability: subtitles must be well visible, and should last long enough to be read easily.
  • Smoothness and naturalness: sentences should be concise but fully understandable, and written in a natural style.
  • Content completeness: it is essential to report complete concepts. Moreover, if sentences become too long, you may cut out emtpy frills and roundabout expressions.
  • Moderation: subtitles should occupy a limited portion of the screen.

So now that we have defined our goals, let’s try to understand how to reach them:

Which are the basic rules to write subtitles?


This post is not intended as a course in subtitling translation. However, let’s try to sum up some basic rules to achieve good results in our subtitling work:

  • Length: each subtitle should consist in a maximum of two lines, each of them made up of a maximum of 36/40 letters.
  • Duration: it is of course related to the length of the subtitle itself; for very short subtitles 1,5 seconds may be sufficient, while maximum-lenght captions may last till 7 or 8 seconds on-screen.
  • Color: subtitles are normally written in white color but, in case the scene background is very pale, yellow or other colors may also be used.
  • Position: subtitles are normally to be located on the lower part of the screen, usually centered or aligned left
  • Synthesis: it is essential to convey all the main ideas and concepts within the limited time and space allowed to every single caption; spectators should read a resume of every idea expressed in the video, summarized in a correct and fluent language.
  • Synchronism: every scene change should have a new subtitle; one caption should not be “dragged” from one scene to the following. Also, the best would be to have the subtitle on-screen for the whole time the character is speaking, to make the whole thing fluent and easily understandable.


The above are just some of the basic rules of this work, but the subtitling translation’ job is far wider and requires concentration, the ability to synthesize and also the use of specific software. These abilities are the result of long hours spent studying and practising: just like pilots, who need a certain flying time to be considered professionals, a subtitler needs a lot of exercise in the field to be able to deliver a complete and correct work.

Sara Galluccio

Editorial translator from English and Spanish into Italian, tireless reader, newbie to blogging. Fond of travelling, nature, sport, food and wine. A real animal lover and in a weird relationship with technology, she hates wasting time and can’t wait for teleporting to be part of her everyday life. The World of her dreams is based on the respectfulness of all the living creatures inhabiting it.

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