'Your doc is great! Now shorten it by two minutes'

In radio, the material has to fit the time-slot so documentary and show producers often need to find a way to lose a few minutes. But the process of figuring out how to shorten a piece that feels like it's finished isn't easy. Kalli Anderson asked 3 doc producers for their best tips and tricks for shortening docs.

When I was producing my documentary, The Twiblings Project, I had this triumphant moment when, after weeks of editing and ruthlessly cutting any material that didn't seem absolutely necessary, I'd managed to turn my 10+ hours of interview material into a great 30-minute, non-narrated doc. The only problem? I was supposed to make a 25-minute doc.

In a Skype call with my mentor, Alison Cook, I said (ok, probably whined), "I don't know what to do. I've cut everywhere I can cut!" And at that time, I was pretty sure I had. I was convinced that any further cuts were going to mean ruining the pacing and sound design I'd laboured over, or losing essential parts of the narrative. Part of the problem was that I'd been determined to produce the doc without any narration. This was partly because I wanted the subjects of the doc to tell their own stories, and, if I'm being totally honest, partly because: 1) I like a challenge; and 2) I'm never satisfied with how my narration sounds in my pieces and enjoy finding ways to avoid doing it.

Alison delivered one of her trademark low-key but firm pep talks and convinced me that maybe, if I really didn't want to cut content or voices from the story, I was going to have to use a little narration to compress time. So, I did. And, as I learned over the couple of months I worked with Alison was usually the case, she was right. I didn't miss the sections she suggested cutting and the narration helped streamline some sections of the piece that had been dragging.

Going through that process of figuring out how to shorten a piece that feels like it's finished made me wonder how other producers tackle this problem. In radio, the material has to fit the time-slot, so documentary and show producers often need to find a way to lose a few minutes.

I reached out to a few CBC producers I admire, and asked them to share their best tips and tricks for shortening docs.


When you've got a finished piece on your timeline, but you know it needs to be two minutes shorter, what kind of things can you usually lose?

Yasmine: At this point, you have to go into that uncomfortable place you didn't want to go to and cut things out that you think matter. Throughout my time making radio documentaries, I've learned that when it comes to emotional content, less is definitely more. I used to think that having listeners cry throughout the entire piece would make it a strong piece, but I came to realize that one moment that really hits home is so much more powerful. So for me those two minutes will definitely be emotional content.
Yasmine Hassan is an associate producer at CBC. She's worked on shows like As It Happens, Cross Country Checkup, Day 6 and Metro Morning. Her documentaries have aired on The Doc Project, Out in the Open and Metro Morning.

Mira: I usually first try to lose details that aren't crucial to the story. Does the specific location matter? Does the job of the person matter to the story? Sometimes those biographical details add good colour, but sometimes they can actually be distancing and letting listeners picture the character in a slightly more generic setting can help them insert themselves into the story. It becomes more of a blank canvas and makes it easier for people listening to think "that could be me."

Michelle: You can usually lose whatever you said going into a clip. The most common thing I see is that people over-narrate, especially leading into a clip. For example:

NARR: And that's why Michelle Parise feels that this particular way of thinking is magical.

MP CLIP:  The more I worked, the more I realized this kind of thinking was like, magical.

That may seem obvious, but even when it isn't as hit you-over-the-head as that example, you can usually let the tape do the storytelling, and cut some of yourself out.

And you can also almost always "nickle and dime" clips. Cut to the nugget of what they're saying or what's important. Cut out when they fumble over words or take too long to get to a point they're trying to make. Cut to the point.

What kinds of things should you never cut from a piece?

Mira:​ Never cut out the emotional climax of the piece, that emotional tape that is most directly speaking to your thesis or narrative theme.
Mira Burt-Wintonick is currently producing CBC Radio's Love Me. Her work has aired on This American Life, The Truth, Snap Judgment, The Heart and CBC's Outfront, among others. She is currently working on a feature documentary film about her late father, filmmaker Peter Wintonick.

Michelle: Pacing is very important, so it's important to let heavy moments sink in, or to hear a person thinking or reacting. Sometimes that silence is everything, but only if it is integral to the storytelling. If they're just taking forever to say something factual, then cut the space out!

Yasmine: You should never cut out sounds and transitions. No matter how desperate you may be to get it down to your time, you need those elements to help your piece breathe and allow the listener to really sit with what they've just heard before moving to the next part. 

What are your best get 'er done tips for making a doc or other audio package shorter on a very tight deadline? 

Yasmine:​ You know that part you're really attached to, that you feel really adds to the piece and made a huge difference? You keep going back to that part and listening again, and now you're thinking that maybe it's not that useful after all? It's not! CUT, CUT, CUT!

Mira: Streamline your narrative goal. You don't need to tell every version of this story in one piece. You can focus on one aspect and tell that story well.

Michelle: I shot list. I write a sketch script of the piece before I even have tape or interviews. Preparation is everything. The piece may change from that early sketch, but at least you've thought it through and are prepared mentally for the arc, and for what you need, instead of wading endlessly through tape or your own thoughts.

That's why pieces are too long. We think all the tape is good and we want all of our thoughts in there. But if we step back and say, what is the story, really? What is the beginning, middle and end? What is the arc and how will I traverse it in this piece? What are the things that are essential to this story, and what things are cool, but take us off that path I've laid out?

Any other secret tips or advice you want to share?

Michelle: I never mix down to separate tracks. I always have a project version. And if it's 10 tracks then it's 10 tracks. That way if I have to go in and nip and tuck or smooth out rough edits or cut 2 minutes out, it's all there and much easier to work with. It's just about fine edits and finding the repetition.
Michelle Parise is the senior producer of Spark. She's been with CBC for more than 20 years working in radio music, radio drama, children's TV, and news and current affairs. She believes in personal, conversational, smart storytelling, and makes everyone stand when they're in front of a mic.

There's almost always repetition in something that's too long. We don't see at first because we're too close to the material. But it's almost always there.

Mira:​ I re-listen to things over and over. Listening without stopping is important, as in, not stopping to fiddle with something, but really listening to the flow of the piece the way a listener would, and taking note of stuff that isn't doing anything. Then take one of those sections out, walk away for a minute, then come back and re-listen and see if you miss it.

And the best thing to do is have other people listen to your piece and tell you which sections are dragging, where they find their attentions wandering. Chances are, those places can stand to lose some fat.

Yasmine: I really feel that those final cuts are instinctive. You can't really plan for them. I definitely will never mix a piece down until the very last second, which makes it easier to tighten transitions and maybe put in a different piece of tape if I need to. 

Also, have fun and take breaks, you need breaks. 

About the author

Kalli Anderson
Kalli Anderson is a Toronto­-based freelance audio producer, documentary filmmaker and writer. She learned how to tell stories on the radio working at CBC Montreal.

While she was there, her documentary about a woman from Cote d'Ivoire who was reunited with her children after twelve years in immigration limbo won the RTNDA Adrienne Clarkson Award for Diversity Reporting. She also writes for a number of print and online publications and has been nominated for a National Magazine Award.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?