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Writing Documentary Treatments: 7 Easy Steps

Matthew Patel
Matthew Patel
Posted in Zoom Sep 5 · 8 Sep, 2022
Writing Documentary Treatments: 7 Easy Steps

Are you a documentary filmmaker who’s looking for financial backers for your project? If so, then you’ll need to create a documentary treatment. This document is essential in attracting collaborators, interviewees, and funders. It contains a synopsis of your project and all the details that make it appealing to the audience.

Any screenwriter knows the importance of writing an effective documentary treatment. So, we’ve put together this article to guide you in creating one. By the end of this article, you’ll have an idea of how to easily jumpstart your documentary project.

What Is a Documentary Treatment?

Usually containing between two to ten pages, documentary treatments let you summarize the essential elements of your project. It usually contains the basic premise of the documentary, its budget, filming location, and other details. 

Collaborators, investors, and other people should be able to look from your perspective and see why your project is feasible and profitable. Moreover, your documentary treatment should convince external stakeholders to invest in your project.

Another purpose of a treatment is to help you create a roadmap that guides your project from concept to reality. The document should make it easier for you to develop your documentary from start to finish.

The Five Elements of a Documentary Treatment

Every documentary treatment contains five main elements:


In a logline, you have to write a single-sentence summary for your documentary. This bit should entice the reader to go through the entire script. Your logline should explain the important parts of your documentary. It should be a hooky sentence that contains the primary subject/s and central conflict.


Now, with the proposal, you’ll need a couple of documents that will explain the important details of your project. It should include the production team bios, treatment, distribution plan, and budget. External stakeholders will check the proposal to review your business plan.


The synopsis is a little bit longer than your logline. It contains the summary of your documentary, including the background of the participants. Some of the best, Academy Award-winning documentaries contain a five-sentence synopsis. Even so, the summary effectively explains the premise of the project and why the story is so unique.


 The tagline is a lot similar to the logline, in the sense that it is short. It also contains a catchy sentence, but its purpose is to help distributors and marketers sell and advertise the documentary. Most of the time, the tagline can be seen on posters, film catalogs, DVD covers, advertisements, or TV guides.

Treatment Body

This portion generally contains details of the journey of the documentary participants. It also discusses the struggles of the subject and what makes them important. As the filmmaker, you also explain where the interviews take place. Let’s say you’re documenting a public figure, particularly their rise and fall. The body will detail the subject’s acquaintances whom you will interview.

Once you combine these five elements, you’re ready to pitch your documentary to investors, participants, and crew members. Remember that an effective documentary treatment encourages people to get involved in your project. 

Depending on the people you’re sharing your documentary treatment with, you can add more sections to the document. For instance, if you want to focus on getting investors, you can add a distribution plan.

The Importance of a Documentary Treatment

As we’ve mentioned, your treatment should expertly describe what your documentary project is about. It will help you organize your ideas and work through potential story angles and themes. Indeed, it is crucial in developing a great documentary.

However, that’s not the only reason why a treatment is useful for your documentary. As we’ve mentioned, it is critical in getting external stakeholders and participants to support your project. In a way, the treatment gets your vision on paper. It will give others a glimpse of what you’re trying to develop.

Of course, you need to spend a lot of time creating an effective documentary treatment. However, you must also constantly update it as you progress with your project. As you move through the writing and production process, your documentary treatment will evolve.

A documentary treatment allows you to:

  • Describe your vision clearly and coherently
  • Create a detailed plan for producing and distributing your documentary
  • Develop a plan for everyone involved
  • List all the shooting and editing needs

If you don’t have a documentary treatment, there will be unexpected problems while you’re shooting your documentary. While the treatment describes the story you want to tell, it only serves as a starting point. 

The treatment helps you set the objectives of every interview, determine the scenes to shoot, and highlight how the audience will relate to the story. Writing this document allows you to create a guide that will bring all of your ideas together.

What Is the Ideal Length of a Documentary Treatment?

When creating a spec script, you need to follow strict rules. However, things are a bit flexible in documentary treatments, especially since the contents can vary. However, one thing remains—it should be engaging and snappy. All the while, it should be comprehensive enough to sell the story and cover all important plot points.

If you’re not writing for a specific audience, a good length for your documentary treatment would be ten pages. Now, let’s say you’re creating the file for a reader in a production company. In this case, your best bet is to consult them and ask what they need in the treatment. Usually, they have a specific page count in mind. Even so, there are no strict rules on the length of documentary treatments. 

How to Write Your Documentary Treatment

When developing your documentary treatment, imagine that you’re writing a short story in the present tense. You should include the tone of the film and the key points of the project. However, since you’re shooting non-fiction, the treatment shouldn’t be overly stylized. After all, you’re not creating a proposal for a novel or a Marvel movie here.

Also, you don’t have to include the whole story in the treatment. As such, if there are unimportant subplots, feel free to cut them out. Ideally, the document should have a three-act structure but without the format of a screenplay. You only need to stick with the primary subjects and the meat of the story. 

Here are the steps to writing an effective documentary treatment:

  1. Write the documentary’s working title.
  2. Include your name and contact details. Of course, you want people to know how to reach you if you want to get your project started.
  3. In your logline, explain the premise of the documentary,
  4. Describe the first act. Explain what the documentary is about while highlighting the motives of the primary subjects. Remember to describe the tone and setup of the documentary.
  5. Get into the second act. Describe the events and conflicts that move the subjects to change. This phase should also highlight where the story is going.
  6. Explain the third act. Explain how the story will reach a resolution. This part should include the climax of the documentary.
  7. Wrap the story up. Show where the documentary will leave the subjects. This section should explain what happens at the end of the story.

If you’re used to writing treatments for TV shows or movies, you should know that the process is different for documentaries. After all, things can be unpredictable in this field. However, the steps we provided should give you the structure you need to create an excellent documentary treatment.

Additional Tips for Writing an Effective Documentary Treatment

As we’ve mentioned, documentary treatments vary quite a lot. However, there are some tips you can follow to ensure that what you’ll create will be at par with the standards in the industry. 

Speak in the Present Tense and Use the Active Voice

To excite the reader, you should tell them what they’ll expect while the story unfolds. To achieve this, you should use the present tense and active voice. By taking this approach, you’re bringing your treatment to life and letting the reader immerse in the story.

Get to the Point

Your documentary treatment should highlight the subjects’ backgrounds, locations, and conflicts. This should be done in detail instead of using cliches or generic phrases. All the details will make it easier for readers to visualize what they can expect from the documentary.

Make it Easy to Understand

Remember that people reading the treatment might not have screenwriting or cinematic experience. So, don’t use filmmaking jargons that are difficult for the average reader to understand.

Use the Right Format

Characters should be introduced in CAPS, followed by their age in parentheses. Here’s a sample:

JUNJUN (7) watches CARLO (45) cast the net into the sea. Junjun instinctively dives into the water and furiously hits the corals with a small stone.

Talk About What the Camera Sees and Hears

Don’t be tempted to write about the inner thoughts, emotions, or desires of the subject. All you need to do is describe what is seen and heard on camera.

Using Transcripts to Make the Entire Production Easy

With accurate transcripts, you have adequate notes for your documentary. Throughout the production, you can use transcription services to help you develop and update your treatment. You can track interviews and conversations accurately. This way, you wouldn’t have to rely on your memory or scribbled notes. Besides, it will be easier for you to search for specific comments or quotes. Imagine doing that when you’re listening to a recorded audio.

During the early, mid, and final stages of documentary production, you’ll find transcription quite useful. Here’s how:

Early Stage

The early stage of your documentary will involve development, planning, pre-production, and actual shooting. You’ll spend a lot of time discussing how the project will progress. You can record and monitor the conversations through transcription. You can record the discussions and let a professional transcriptionist convert the audio into text.

When you know that the meetings will have transcripts, you can confidently focus on important matters during discussions. This way, you wouldn’t have to be distracted by your notes. For instance, with GoTranscript’s transcription services, you can get your recording text within six hours. As a result, you can quickly have the details you need for developing your documentary treatment. 

Middle Stage

Once you’ve started principal photography, you can organize focus groups to measure initial audience response. The feedback will help you decide how to move forward with your documentary. The responses will also show you what you need to modify to improve the overall quality of your project.

For example, you’re filming a documentary about the high illiteracy rate in a seaside community. During the test screening, you learn that your audience is drawn to the inefficient livelihood program in the area. As a result, parents do not have a choice but to let their children work at an early age. Now, to accommodate this interest, you might decide to focus on how the local government unit is addressing the economic gap in the community.

  • During this phase, you can use the focus group interview transcripts to:
  • Search for quotes that illustrate the interest of the audience
  • Search for comments that made you decide to modify the direction of the documentary
  • Describe how the new topics will be handled and addressed

Final Stage

Before you move into post-production after wrapping up the film, you might want to review some conversations and interviews. This way, you can add important details that may add meat to the overall story of your documentary.

Have Transcripts to Make Writing Documentary Treatments Easier

Indeed, writing a comprehensive yet effective documentary treatment can be challenging. However, if you know the steps and you have transcripts, the process will be a lot easier. Record the interviews, conversations, and meetings, then send them over to GoTranscript. Our transcripts are 100% human-generated. So, you know that you’ll get accurate texts that will help you write your documentary treatment.