I wrote my first post on how to write video descriptions for TikTok and other short-form video content in 2019 after my friends started sending me several different videos from the platform. TikTok video accessibility has changed a lot since then, and I’ve updated my guide for how to write video descriptions for TikTok, YouTube Shorts, Instagram Reels, and similar platforms to reflect new types of content, and how content is cross-posted across multiple platforms. Here are my tips for how to write video descriptions for TikTok and what to include in video descriptions, from the perspective of a user with low vision and photosensitivity.
What is a video description?
A video description is a text-based description of what is happening in a video. Video descriptions provide information about the audio (typically in the form of transcripts) and visual content, which can help viewers better understand what is going on. Video descriptions closely resemble alt text and image descriptions, which are used for making images accessible online and on social media platforms.
Another video accessibility option is audio description, which is an additional narrative track that plays alongside a video, providing information about visual elements such as scene changes, facial expressions, and movement that wouldn’t otherwise be noticeable to a viewer with vision loss. Unlike video descriptions, audio descriptions do not describe the audio of a video, and only provide information about visual elements.
- How To Write Alt Text and Image Descriptions for the Visually Impaired
- 8 Myths About Audio Description
Why I love video descriptions
I love when creators include video descriptions for their TikToks or other video content for a few different reasons:
- Since I avoid strobe and flashing lights for medical reasons, I don’t have auto-play enabled. Reading a video description can help me determine if a video is safe for me to watch
- If a lot of text appears on the screen, I find it easier to read a transcript at my own pace than to pause the video, take a screenshot, extract the text, read what it says, and then go back to the video
- I can enlarge the text of the comments/caption section of a post more easily than the on-screen text of the video, and I can also use text-to-speech or a screen reader to read it out loud
- Sometimes, I’m not sure what I am looking at when I am watching a video, and video descriptions can help provide clarity. For example, I once thought I was watching a video where the subject was a cat, when it was actually a groundhog- when I learned that information, everyone else’s reactions suddenly made sense
- When watching fashion videos, it helps to know the types of items that are in an outfit, especially if they are layered
- Tips For Using Social Media With Photosensitivity
- How To Access Images Without Alt Text
- How To Write Video Descriptions For Animal Videos On Social Media
- How To Write Alt Text For Casual Outfits
What to include in video descriptions for TikTok
When writing video descriptions, I typically include the following information in this order:
Content warnings, if applicable
- Some creators put a content warning or trigger warning as the first frame of their video, or may include them later on in the video.
- I recommend sharing any content or trigger warnings at the beginning of a video description so users can choose whether they want to interact with the content
- Be specific about what is in the content warning- in the context of flashing lights, I recommend using terms like strobe lights, flashing lights, strobing, seizure warning, or similar. I strongly recommend avoiding using terms like “epilepsy” which are not very specific
- When reposting a video, it’s okay to add additional content warnings as necessary, even if the creator did not include them originally
Description of the subject
- If the subject of the video is the person who posted it, use their name or username. For example, if I posted a video where I am the only subject, I would say “Veronica” (my display name) or “@Veron4ica” (my username). If I was collaborating with my friend, I would include their name or username as well.
- When names or other identifying info is not available, I would give a basic description such as “yellow lab”, “eight-year-old girl with blonde hair”, “Target employee”, or other contextual info that is important for understanding the video
- For celebrities or people with their own Wikipedia page, I would use their name, e.g. “David Bowie”
- If I knew who was in the video but they didn’t identify themselves, I would not share this information- for example, if I recognized my brother in a video but he didn’t share his name, I would not reveal this information in a video description
Time and place of the video
- The setting of a video can provide important contextual info, such as if a video is being shot on a basketball court at night or in a kitchen
- Unless there is an important item in the background that provides context to the video, I typically stick with simple descriptions such as “bedroom” or “office”
- For historical clips or old interviews, I recommend including the year or source of the clip when possible. For example, I saw a short clip of an interview with David Bowie with text added that mentions the interview taking place in October 2002.
- If the location is not tagged but is a place I recognize (like a nearby coffee shop or shopping mall), I do not mention the location of the video unless it is a landmark like the Statue of Liberty
- When creating video descriptions, I write out all text verbatim as a transcript, indicating whether the text is displayed on the screen or if it is read out loud.
- I don’t typically describe the font of a video unless it is significant to understanding the video, such as if the video is about typography or if the punchline is the style of the font
- If emoji show up on screen, users can include the emoji itself in the transcript. If multiple emoji are included, I would write out something like “three cake emoji”, since putting three cake emoji next to each other would read “cake cake cake.”
- Write out all spoken audio, adding environmental sounds if they are important for understanding the video. For example, I wouldn’t need to know that a car alarm is beeping in the background of a video, unless the subject acknowledges it or interacts with it
- When writing a transcript for a video with multiple subjects, indicate which subject is speaking. This is especially helpful for interviews!
- When combining on-screen text with audio, I write the on-screen text before adding the audio. For example, if the on-screen text read “Audio transcript”, followed by the subject saying, “write out all spoken audio”, I would write the video description as “Audio transcript: Write out all spoken audio.”
- For music, I recommend writing out the name of the song and/or artist. If it is a meme sound effect, write out the name it is known by, i.e “Wii music”
Movement and scene changes
- When the subject of the video moves around or changes locations, this should be noted in the video description. For example, “Veronica leaves the kitchen and runs outside”
- If the subject makes different facial expressions that are relevant to the video, this should also be noted. For example, “Veronica stops smiling and looks confused as she notices a bird on top of the TV”
- When I write video descriptions, I incorporate information about movement and scene changes into the transcript. For example, if I was speaking and then jumped in the air before talking again, I would add the phrase “Veronica jumps in the air” between the two sections of dialogue.
Lighting or animation effects used
- Some TikToks use lighting or animation effects, such as rainbow flashing lights or other types of scene transitions.
- If the video effect is present throughout the whole video, I describe the effect at the end of the video description
- For videos that consistently use the same transition, such as fashion videos showing off different outfits, one way to write this would be “Veronica spins to reveal each new outfit, starting with outfit 1”, followed by the description
What to avoid when writing video descriptions
When describing colors of an outfit or if color is a significant part of the video, use shade names such as cobalt blue, periwinkle, burgundy, lime green, metallic gold, or similar names- there’s no need to describe what the color red looks like, shade names are fine. If there are multiple colors in a pattern, start by mentioning the base color and then mention the color(s) of pattern elements.
Even if a word makes me uncomfortable to type, I will include the word if it is visible on screen and not censor it or change how it is written. However, some creators will censor their own language in a way that doesn’t make sense for someone who is using a screen reader- if the word was already censored, it’s okay to censor it in a transcript in a different way, such as adding dashes in place of emoji or other punctuation.
Opinions about the video content
Let the user come to their own conclusions about what they are watching, and avoid inserting personal opinions into video descriptions, especially if they are a commentary on how the subject looks or a disagreement with what is being shared.
How to add video descriptions to TikTok or other platforms
Just like image descriptions, I would include video descriptions in the caption or comments section of the post so that they can be read by anyone. Another option is to share a link to read an extended video description on another website, such as Pastebin or a blog. I recommend using the term “Transcript:” or “Video Description:” before adding the rest of the video description to the caption/comment, or pinning the description underneath the post caption.
As of publishing time, users cannot use the alt text field for video content.
- How To Add Alt Text On Social Media
- Options For Writing Extended Image Descriptions On Social Media
- How To Create Image Descriptions For Red Carpet Looks
Other tips for how to write video descriptions for TikTok
- I previously had recommended keeping transcripts/captioning and video descriptions separate, but have changed my opinion after realizing that audio plays a role in understanding visual descriptions
- Want to learn more about describing memes? Read How To Write Alt Text For Memes and How To Write Alt Text For Gifs
- I gave a talk about how to write descriptions for protest and news videos- the transcript can be found Writing Media Descriptions For Current Events: My Talk At Protest Access-A-Thon
- For videos posted on YouTube, the free YouDescribe tool is a great option for creating audio description- learn more by reading How To Create Audio Description For YouTube With YouDescribe