How to Land Your First TV Writing Job
It may seem impossible to an avid TV fan, but if you want to travel through the tube and get to the other side as a staff writer on your favorite shows, you need to watch more television. Follow the advice in this TV writing guide to give your spec scripts a fighting chance.
A career as a writer doesn’t have to mean an entirely solitary life. Instead of sitting alone at a desk, drinking mass amounts of coffee, and scraping your mind for material, you could choose to huddle in a conference room with other writers in an effort to burst the boundaries of one human brain. And also drink mass amounts of coffee.
There’s never been a better time to write for TV. Ever since the DVD created the ability to watch and rewatch shows at will, and especially since the DVR created the opportunity to never miss an episode, the craft of television writing has evolved from its original ideologies and inherent limitations. Dramas like Lost, The Wire, and Mad Men and comedies like Arrested Development, 30 Rock, and The Office have ushered in new eras of storytelling, production scope, and attention to detail. An intelligent writer no longer has to leave literary pursuits at the studio door.
But that doesn’t mean you can just waltz into L.A. with an idea for a great new series and leap onto the pages of TV Guide. Unless you’ve got great connections, breaking into television, like any industry, often requires taking on an entry-level job. In this case, it could be more practical to first aspire to be a staff writer who contributes ideas and material to someone else’s show.
Landing your first staff writing job could turn out to be easier than you think, but it’ll take a lot more than reading this article to make it happen. Let’s begin with some essential steps to get you moving in the right direction.
Learn the Craft.
TV writing follows formulas. Time limits, commercial breaks, and budgets are just a few of the writer’s constrictions. But, fear not. Think of these “obstacles” more as jumping points for new creative solutions. You can change the shape of a mold, but you can’t rip down the walls.
On a more practical level, know this: TV (and movie) scripts adhere to strict aesthetic formatting guidelines. You can’t just open a word document, type freely, and send it out. If you do, your work will be trashed. Forget the recycle bin.
1. Take classes.
Option 1: Enroll in a degree-granting program. If TV writing is your definite goal as a writer, be careful not to choose too broad a major that covers all the types of creative writing. You are not trying to write poetry, short fiction, creative non-fiction or otherwise. You want to write for TV. So, instead, research each Creative Writing program, and find institutions committed to teaching writing for the entertainment industry, a whole different bag of tricks, and see if one is right for you. Many can be completed online, from anywhere in the world.
Option 2: Sign up for classes from a non-degree seeking program. If you can write for TV better than the next guy, no one’s looking for your degree. These, too, can be taken online. Often, these types of programs offer certificates of completion to flaunt around town, if you really desire that piece of paper.
Taking classes means you’ll learn the craft and make connections along the way. You’ll work with people who have real life experience. Connections are the most useful tool in any career endeavor, especially entertainment.
2. Invest in some reference books.
Check out Alex Epstein’s Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box for valuable tips. Pick up The Screenwriter’s Bible, now in it’s fifth edition, for all issues with formatting. Be on the lookout for recommendations and new publications. Heed their advice. They’ll tell you all about the way dialogue is formatted and the way stage directions should lack directorial suggestions and explanation.
3. Read other scripts/Actively watch TV from a writer’s perspective.
If you’re lucky or skilled enough to dig up an actual script of your favorite show on the Internet, dive in and study it. If not, when you’re watching your favorite shows, ask questions: What is happening? How is it being conveyed? Why is it working? How can you apply this to your work? Look at character development, plot, structure, dialogue, etc. throughout a single episode and an entire season. Find patterns, make associations, and write down discoveries.
A helpful habit is to transcribe shows as you watch (especially if you can rewind with DVD or DVR). Exactly how long are the episodes? How many acts make up one show? At what times are the commercial breaks? It’s more-often-than-not uniform for each episode of each specific show. Consult your craft books to properly format your transcriptions.
4. Get scriptwriting software.
This makes it a lot easier and faster for you to learn formatting as you write. The software offers the tools that help you squeeze your creativity into the acceptable aesthetic for reading.
The key to learning any craft is total immersion. Search for interviews with TV writers, find out who’s who in the industry, and consider the roads they’ve taken. Be confident. Live it. Stay humble. Keep an open mind.
Write (and Rewrite) Your Spec Script.
Spec scripts are speculative screenplays. No one asks or pays you to write it. Spec scripts can be written for original shows or episodes of existing shows.
When aiming for your first staff-writing job, your duty is to write an episode of an existing show, not an original series. Your goal is not to sell your script but to get a job writing for someone else’s show. Think of your spec script as a calling card, a résumé, and a writing sample all in one.
1. Choose a show to spec.
Are you a dramatist or a comedian? If you’re a dramatist, do you write stuff more like CSI or Breaking Bad or something else entirely? If you’re a comedian, do you specialize in dry humor, satire, slapstick, or what? Writing a spec script for Curb Your Enthusiasm may not get you a job on something like Modern Family, but perhaps it’ll get you something along the lines of Eastbound & Down. It certainly won’t get you on Desperate Housewives.
Pick a spec script for a proven show, not something in its first season. That way, you have more to draw from, and your future employers will be more likely to have heard of it and be familiar with it. It helps if the show is buzzworthy. This creates an illusion of a fast turnaround, a virtue in the TV industry. The script could take you months and months and months to get right, but no one has to know that.
Stay away from shows that have been around too long. Think of all the writers who have already spec’ed it. The last thing you want is an agent thinking, Great—another Simpsons script or I’ll just stick this in that trash pile of other Law & Order renderings I’ve received the past 10 years.
2. Study the structure, character, plot, and tone of the show.
Now you know the importance of transcribing other shows while learning the craft. Locate the commercial breaks in the show, and make sure your spec script puts them in the right place. If the show has a classic A, B, C intersecting storyline, don’t add a D or remove the B. If it has a four-act structure, you better have four acts. If each script turns out to be 22 pages, don’t have more in yours. Do not reinvent the wheel.
Know the main character. Prove you understand his or her voice, the types of choices he or she makes. Keep the side characters on the side. Your goal is not to develop character but to flaunt your consistency and your ability to do what is expected better than everyone else. But be careful: you do not want to recycle a plot that’s already been written. And you certainly don’t want to violate the show’s tone and do something like add moments of sentimentality in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
3. Write the thing.
There’s no way around it. Writer’s write. So, write. No shortcuts.
4. Accept criticism. Thrive on it.
Show your script to trusted friends and fans of the show. Do they believe in it? Can they see a flaw you can’t see because you’re not far enough removed? If it’s a comedy, do they think it’s funny? If it’s a drama, are they gripped? Can they sit there and read the whole thing?
In writing rooms, shows are written by assembly. As a staff writer, you won’t get credit for your ideas or words, at first. Some people will like your ideas. Some won’t. Others will take what you say and twist it into something else. This is the nature. If you can’t accept criticism, no one will like you. You won’t survive by clawing your way into popularity.
Find writing groups or workshops in your community or online. Don’t be bashful. People talk about the competitiveness of writers, but the truth is: unknown writers are all in it together. Never forget the importance of connections. You never know who will get you your first job.
5. Write another.
It can be a spec script for a similar show or another episode of the one you’ve already chosen. If an agent or executive likes what you’ve given them, they’ll want to see more of it. Do the work. Do you want to get a call request for another sample and have to make them wait?
The key to writing your spec scripts is editing and rewriting. No first draft is a done deal. TV shows are written by more than one person for a reason. Everything can be improved. Dialogue can be tightened. Layers take time, thought, rethought, and more time. Fresh eyes breed fresh solutions. Fresh solutions mean better writing.
Get an Agent
Unless you have direct connections, most TV executives will not read unsolicited manuscripts. Agents, then, are your transportation from obscurity to employment. They make a living off the sales skills and connections you don’t have because you were too busy writing. They don’t get paid unless you do. If an agent is asking any fee from you other than something small, like copying costs or more than the standard 10-12 percent, be skeptical. Scams exist out there. Don’t be a desperate dummy.
1. Find and research agencies. Target new individual agents.
The Writer’s Guild of America has done you a favor by compiling a list of reputable agencies. Check it out. Research the ones that interest you. What type of stuff do they represent? How do they want to be contacted? Are they accepting new writers?
Notice that the list covers full agencies, not individual agents. An individual will represent you, so research the one or two at the agencies who prefer writers like you. Agents are busy people. They don’t have time for, say, a dramatist emailing a specialist in sketch-comedy writers.
Focus on newer agents at the firms. They’re more willing to fight for something they believe in. And that’s exactly what you want in an agent: someone who believes in you as much as you do. New agents want to represent the next big thing as much as you want to be it.
2. Sculpt a provocative query letter
Query letters are your first form of communication with an agent. If your query intrigues an agent, he/she will ask to see your spec script. Don’t just open an email, write some stuff, and hit send. There’s an art to this. Entire books have been written about the process. Classes are offered. If you buy a book or take a class, make sure it’s geared toward query letters for the entertainment industry. Most classes out there cover querying non-fiction books. Those obviously aren’t for you.
A quick Google search will show numerous articles dedicated solely to writing this letter effectively. In general, queries are no longer than one page. The briefer, the better. You simply introduce yourself and the work you want to send. You don’t need to tell your life story, and you don’t need to suggest which studios you like. Don’t do their job. Request to send them your spec script. If they’re interested in the show, currently accepting new clients, or awoken by your standout query, they’ll want to read it. If not, they won’t.
Don’t be afraid to show a little personality. Stand out from the crowd. This is the entertainment industry. So, entertain.
3. Get used to rejection.
Sometimes agents don’t respond. Many times, they respond negatively. It doesn’t mean you’re not cut out for TV writing. It means the agent/writer relationship isn’t a good fit or, more commonly, you’re a victim of bad timing.
Keep logs of agencies and agents that you’ve queried and that have both requested and not requested for you to send your spec script. Nothing is more annoying to an agent than hearing from the same writer over and over again. It shows recklessness and impatience. Sometimes agents will respond after you think they’ve ignored you or when you think there’s no hope left. Sometimes they’ll refer you to someone who is a better fit.
Be polite. Thank them for their time. Don’t burn bridges.
The key to getting an agent is well-aimed persistence. Meet more people. Write more scripts. Try, try again. If you don’t like making connections and writing for free, chances are you won’t like writing for money either.
Remember: the joy of being a writer is the process of writing, not in the rewards of having written. If you want it, if you’re committed, if you live it, no one will stop you.
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