For television writers, the first step is an entry-level gig as a staff writer. This is a less glorious title than it appears, and does not receive a credit, but it is the probationary proving ground that trains emerging storytellers in the art of creating episodic television. Under the Writers Guild of America minimum basic agreement, staff writers are paid a weekly salary and contracted for a designated period during the life of a series.
The process will vary depending on the executive producer and show format; TV staff writers may be given a very detailed job description or left to figure out their role one step at a time. The bulk of the work takes place in the writers’ room. Whether it’s a large conference room with a dry-erase board or a gathering place among a group of desks, this is where writers congregate to break down scripts, develop plot points, flesh out characters, and eat artery-threatening quantities of junk food. In these collaborative sessions, the staff writer should take advantage of the opportunity to provide input. Like improvisational actors, writers bounce ideas off one another with the aim of adding to and supporting brainstorming, rather than detracting from it; constructive criticism should be followed up with a pitch for a solution. If invited to do so, a staff writer may participate in first reads and rehearsals with the cast, to be on hand to take notes and make necessary changes to scenes that are not playing well. The eventual goal is to develop your own scripts; though it is rare for a new staff writer to see that script accepted for an episode, it demonstrates initiative and displays your skills.
Skills & Education
A degree is not required for work as a television writer, but a relevant education is invaluable. Majors in creative writing, English, or film production are helpful. Courses in literary theory will help you create your own unique voice by evaluating other authors. Scriptwriting may be included in the creative writing track or be available as part of a university’s film degree. Comedy writers often get a foundation by taking classes at improvisational theaters like the Second City, Upright Citizens Brigade, or the Groundlings. It’s also not a bad idea to take classes in entertainment business to learn how to properly manage your career. Writers should certainly have storytelling talent, but just as important is a realistic understanding of the industry, a skin thick enough to take constructive criticism, and the ability to effectively collaborate. Take it upon yourself to learn how to properly format a spec script using software like Final Draft and Movie Magic. Above all, remember that being able to produce creative content on demand is your job—there’s no mooning around waiting for the muse to alight. This is a professional environment, not an artists’ colony.
What to Expect
To encourage showrunners to hire fresh talent, the WGA has negotiated special provisions that allow staff writers to be hired at minimum cost and risk; that translates to minimum pay and a low level of responsibility. Staff writers are not guaranteed the opportunity to write episodes and are not paid script fees, but they are given the coveted chance to participate in script meetings and have input on the final shooting script.
Certainly, a rookie staff writer cannot afford to be picky when hunting for a break-in opportunity, but think long and hard about the type of television show you want to work on. Gravitate toward the genre and subjects that most inspire you, and the writing you deliver will be better for it. The best way to get a foot in the door is to write spec episodes of two or three shows you love—this might be your only chance to write an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, so go for it. You or (more likely) your agent will circulate the spec scripts among showrunners, and if you’ve got the right stuff, you’ll eventually land a staff position; even if it happens to be on a bottom-rated cable series or talk show, keep your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open and learn everything you can about the process. Identify the workflow style and determine the vibe between the showrunner and the writers and the pecking order among the writers themselves; your job is to mesh with the team dynamic, not turn the show on its head. Embrace the executive producer’s vision—don’t fight it. Above all, respect your fellow co-workers and the sanctity of the writers’ room. Those who prove their talent, skill, and dependability to be invaluable may be offered advancement to the role of story editor or writer-producer, or receive offers to write on higher-profile TV shows.
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