How to Edit a Documentary: A Step-by-Step Guide

January 22, 2024

A documentary is a non-fiction movie with characters and arcs that are grounded in the real world. Besides the critical eye and creativity needed for any kind of video editing, documentary editors need a nose for research and a commitment to maintaining factual accuracy.

You'll probably be faced with long hours of unorganized clips in multiple formats, so you'll need to come up with mapmaking and storage systems to help you plow your way through the maze and back again. It's also important to have a fast video editing program that can handle all the raw footage and innumerable tracks.

Finally, and most importantly, you'll need a feel for storytelling and an intuition for the emotional side of the truth with all its tensions and reliefs. After that, it's time to settle in and get to the hard work of cutting, refining, and then enhancing your sequence of clips. Let's look at the ins and outs of how to edit a documentary.

The Editor's Role in Documentary Filmmaking

Editing a documentary is a bit different from editing other types of videos. Even the biggest documentaries rarely feature famous faces or flashy effects, so they must rely more on their powerful stories to captivate their audience.

As the editor, it's your job to wrestle that multi-headed monster of endless raw footage into a coherent and emotional narrative that both entertains and informs. You need to figure out exactly where the story begins and ends and how to get from the former to the latter.

If you're working with a team, you'll be the intermediary between the visionary director and the anonymous audience. It's your job to shape the story's scenes, stakes, and structure in a way that communicates the director's ideas and moves viewers of all flavors.

Key Steps in Documentary Editing

Documentary filmmaking is notorious for its high ratio of raw footage to finished film length. You'll have more and cruder clips than almost anyone else in the film game. This means more work for you but also more material to work with.

You'll need to separate and organize the best clips, looking for informative and emotional threads to weave into a compelling tapestry. Then, you'll set the pace, revealing information and drama at just the right moments. Finally, you'll refine and enhance the narrative and visual details, remixing and testing sequences and correcting color and audio.

Here are some key steps to take when editing a documentary.

Step 1: Organize Your Footage

Back up and organize your footage before anything else. The jewels captured in documentary film production can be impossible to recreate, so save all your video, audio, and still images to two different locations.

The sheer volume of video you'll have means you'll need to create a simple file structure and naming system to avoid losing important clips. Sort your raw media files into separate folders and subfolders in a way that makes sense to you and is easy to remember. It doesn't hurt to get a bit OCD about this. You can start with a master folder, and then break that down into subfolders for each separate camera, day, event, location, etc.

If you have separate mic audio, store the audio data from each mic in a subfolder next to its corresponding video data. If you plan to add music or sound effects, store all the songs and effects you're considering in the same folder for easy comparison.

Watch all your raw material as you organize it, and take notes. Write down file names, locations, and timecodes for the most interesting, informative, and moving moments so you can find them later. These are your documentary's bones.

You can build your notes out into a paper edit outlining the film's basic structure and filling in a few crucial moments. This will help you wrap your head around the project, and of course, you're welcome to change things later.

Step 2: Assemble a Rough Cut

Just because you're making nonfiction doesn't mean you have to leave your creativity in the cold. Crafting the story means choosing where it begins and ends as well as where it meanders in the middle. Any of these three can make or break a narrative.

A good framework to start with is this three-act structure:

  • Begin with an inciting incident. This should draw the viewer in and lay the foundations for what's ahead.
  • Find and follow your most interesting characters' arcs. How is your story changing the people in it?
  • Finish with a satisfying climax. This can resolve your narrative's main issue, but some of the most effective documentaries follow a tragedy trajectory, leaving their Romeos and Juliets hanging.

Your documentary will consist of a series of scenes strung together like Christmas lights guiding your audience through your story. Each scene should have a clear intention and push your story forward, like radians that link together to form its arc.

Besides the main plot events that happen in a scene, be aware of the overall message the scene sends, the new information it divulges, and the emotions it conveys. Some scenes might have all the above, and some might be mostly emotional or informative. Try to mix things up so that your viewers don't get cloyed with feelings or bored with data. Contrast helps keep people focused.

Just like most stories, most scenes should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. These usually come in the form of an establishing shot leading to medium and close-up shots and ending with an exit shot.

  • Many scenes begin with a wide shot to show the audience the scene's setting. Take note of your best, most explanatory wide shots for this purpose.
  • The close-ups and mediums in the middle of a scene should feel like they're building toward something, revealing more and more information as they go.
  • Once you arrive at your scene's climax, its reason for being in the documentary, don't linger too long. Just like a joke's punchline, your scene's climax should just about wrap it up.

Step 3: Refine Your Story

Once you've carved out a rough first draft out of the amorphous marble of raw data, it's time to turn your artistic eye toward refining the sequence and pacing a little. Try different scene orders and experiment with including and excluding the ones you're not sure about. Sometimes you'll realize that a middle moment actually belongs at the beginning or has enough emotional punch to work as an ending.

When you've been buried in your timeline for too long, it can be hard to step back and see your film objectively. It might be useful to show your rough cut to an uninvolved test audience that can give you honest feedback.

Step 4: Professional Editing Techniques for Documentaries

Now that you have a refined rough cut and maybe even some audience feedback, your second cut will zoom in on the details of each scene and each individual clip. You'll strengthen the storytelling and structure by adding b-roll, color-correcting clips, polishing the audio, and making sure your sequence keeps a good rhythm and doesn't lag.

Here are a few advanced editing techniques you can use in your post-production to make your documentary look more professional.


As you edit, whenever you notice a place in your documentary that might benefit from b-roll, add it to your notes. You'll need to balance your portraits and landscapes, your shots with and without people, so that your viewers don't get bored with talking heads or rolling hills.

For example, your interviews might be freckled with filler words or hesitations that distract from the conversation. To avoid unprofessional-looking jump cuts when removing these, you can cut to a related b-roll clip. Try to use clips that visualize the speaker's words or provide context.


Montages are interesting, energetic, and a great way to show time passing. Don't use too many of them, or things can start to feel emotionally dry.

Moving Pictures

If you don't have enough footage for a certain scene or idea, you can keep your audience interested by adding motion to a still image. Add a keyframe to your editing software's pan or zoom tool where you want the motion to start, and put additional keyframes wherever you want to stop or change the motion.

Color Correction

Documentaries are generally made up of clips from many different kinds of cameras and other media of different ages. This makes it more vital than ever that you balance the colors and exposure from your varied sources to give your film a more continuous and professional feel. Use contrast as a tool, but don't let unintentional color swings distract from your story.

Audio Enhancement

DIY documentary editors often overlook their audio processing. Your film's sound is the final piece needed to immerse your viewer fully into its world. All dialogue should be easy to understand and free of distortions and errors. Sprinkling in music and natural sound effects like crunching footsteps or background ambiance can help create a tone and enhance emotions. Make sure to normalize your audio at the end to avoid unintentional distractions.

What Is the Best Editing Software for Documentaries?

Choose editing software that excels at the specific mechanics of documentary editing. Think about how much control you need over basic editing tasks like cutting and splicing video clips, tweaking audio, correcting color, etc. Can your editing software handle hundreds of hours of footage? Can it provide a fast, seamless editing workflow so that you can focus on your muse?

Here are the most popular software options for editing documentaries:

  • Avid Media Composer – As the gold standard in the filmmaking industry, Media Composer comes loaded with tools, capabilities, effects, and stock footage. It can handle more footage at once and has a bigger timeline than any other editing software we know of. Its keyboard-based editing ends up being much faster than click-based cutting, and its collaboration features are unrivaled for large teams. Its sister software Pro Tools comes with a serious arsenal of audio tools, including powerful audio ducking to help clean up your interviews.
  • Final Cut Pro – If you're shackled to a Mac, Final Cut Pro has a beautiful interface and a large gallery of effects and graphics. It also works well with high-frame-rate video, giving you very little lag.
  • DaVinci Resolve – DaVinci is famous for its color correction and grading, allowing you to give your documentary the perfect mood and flavor. This all-in-one editor runs well on low-budget computers, and you can even download a powerful free version.

The Art of Documentary Editing

Documentary editors need to have an eye for aesthetics, a nose for factual accuracy, and a feel for emotions and tone. You'll be relying on the power of your story more than fiction editors, so don't be afraid to get obsessed with organization and take copious notes.

Find a good rhythm between plot events, new information, and emotional content to keep your audience hooked. Throw in a few advanced editing techniques like covering interview hiccups and lean moments with b-roll or moving still images.

Don't forget to step back from deep editing mode every once in a while and rest your mind. A walk around the block, a shower, or some other easy, automatic activity can actually stimulate ideas and bring you back to the editing table refreshed. If you're feeling a bit overwhelmed by your enormous task, try the free trial of Avid's Media Composer Ultimate, which has one of the fastest editing workflows and some of the most advanced editing features in the industry.







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