What to Expect… Breaking into TV Writing
Today, more than ever, many writers are eager to break into TV writing. Not only is the TV industry making a ton of exciting episodic content, quickly outpacing film output in the industry, but some of the best stories out there with some of the most intricate and fascinating characters are being told one episode at a time. As it has been for more than a decade now, TV remains a huge, growing industry. Additionally, TV offers writers something that feature writing rarely does: Upward mobility. The expectation for TV writers is that they will work their way up the ladder with every TV season in which they are in the room, from staff writer all the way to Executive Producer. And, let’s face it, as long as you are working consistently, the pay is not too shabby either.
However, the glut of content being made does not necessarily translate to a wealth of writers’ room jobs available for anyone to grab. Today, most episodic content is not being developed and produced by networks as it was in the past; this means shorter episode orders per season, as well as smaller writers’ rooms often working with skeleton writing crews. What does this mean? While writers break into TV writing all the time (this past year, five of my writers were able to staff on TV shows for the very first time) it is also never easy. So as you pursue your TV writing career, what should you expect?
Expect getting your first staffing gig to take some time
Every writer I’ve ever spoken to who wants to write for TV feels that they are ready to staff NOW. And I am, by no means, saying that those writers are wrong. But, in my experience, for 99% of writers, it takes a long time to secure that first staff writing gig. And by long, we are usually talking years. Often times, it will take more than one staffing season, or one showrunner meeting, to get that coveted seat. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to get there, it just means it’s not going to be easy. Or part.
Expect stiff competition for every open seat and staff writing position
It’s been said that for every staff writing position in the room that is not filled with a support staff member moving up into a writer’s seat, there are hundreds of writers submitted. Having seen this first-hand, I don’t find those figures to be exaggerated. Because Staff Writer is the entry level writer position in the room, it’s going to be the position with the most writers contending for it, hoping that it will give them that first, much needed break. Because of this, it’s of critical importance that the writer’s pilot is a stand-out writing sample, and that every industry contact who can reach out to the showrunner and advocate for the writer has been activated.
Expect a stand-out TV pilot to be critical to your rise
Because competition for those staff writer positions is so steep, it’s beyond critical that your writing sample stand out for all the right reasons, and puts your skills and storytelling sensibility on display in a way that makes sense for the show you’re trying to get a writing position on. Therefore, look at your body of work and consider what sort of shows the pilots within it would put you in contention for. If your body of work lacks a sample that would be a good fit for the type of show you would like to be considered for, that’s something you may want to consider when you decide on your next project. Additionally, make sure that your samples are thoroughly vetted and proof-read, that they elicit the desired response from readers in the know, in order to make sure that they give you the best fighting chance once in decision-makers hands.
Expect recommendations and personal relationships to play a part
As mentioned above, personal recommendations to the showrunner from known industry players can go a long way for securing a staff writing position for the writer. This past staffing season, one of my writers pulled every lever she had in pursuit of a staff writing position she knew was available: Mentors went out of their way to call the showrunner and sing the writer’s praises. Industry contacts were asked to reach out with a good word. Even common Facebook friends were contacted. By the time the writer got on a zoom call with the showrunner, she was told not two minutes into the meeting: “Everyone I love loves you, and your writing sample is amazing, so the job is yours if you want it.” In the post-covid industry, those all-important relationships are key to landing that first staff writing position.
Expect showrunner meeting to be elusive
While many writers are eager to start going on those crucial showrunner meetings in order to start competing for staff writing positions in earnest, showrunner meetings can be very difficult to land. As noted above, more often than not hundreds of pilots are submitted by agents, managers, other writers, studio executives and friends of the show for just one or two staff-writer spots. From those, only a handful of writers – at best – will get invited for showrunner meetings. More often than not, it’s those writers who were able to get a known industry contact to advocate for them with the showrunner, whose writing sample was a true standout, and/or whose life experience directly connects with the characters, content, tone or world of the show, that get those hard-to-land interviews.
Expect showrunner meetings to come about in unexpected ways
For many, the idea of how a showrunner meeting should come about is fairly straight forward: Get submitted to the show by a rep or an executive, hopefully get the call for a showrunner interview, and from there, fingers crossed, land the job. But, simple as it sounds, that is not always how it works. Over my many years working with writers, I’ve seen showrunner interviews come about through a variety of avenues. The more obvious ones are rep submissions or getting submitted for a staff writing position through a TV writing fellowship or program that would pay the writers’ way into the room (more on that in just a moment). But I’ve also seen showrunner interviews come about through writing instructors who were able to match a writer with unique life experience to a show that could put said experience to good use, recommendations from friends, and even Twitter. In other words? You never know.
Expect to leave it all on the table in your showrunner interview
Any writer lucky enough to land a showrunner meeting should come in ready to share what makes them right for that particular show. This means making sure to illustrate any personal connections to the characters, world, or themes at the heart of the show. Come ready to share personal anecdotes that illustrate those connections in order to convey how your presence in the room will contribute to and enhance the show’s authenticity. Be sure to do any and all research: If you’re meeting on a returning show, watch previous episodes, and come ready to pitch potential storylines for particular characters, or storylines that enhance specific themes without repeating something that the show’s already done in a previous episode. If it’s a new show you’ve gotten a meeting on, read the pilot and any other material that might be available, and watch some of the showrunner’s previous shows, in order to best understand what the showrunner is going for.
Expect staffing to often be driven by agents
Because staffing can be largely a numbers game, more often than not it falls more heavily within an agent’s job description. Not only do agencies have the manpower to track networks and studios (including streamers) to find out where staffing opportunities might open up, but they often also have the “package” on a show, which means that they would be incentivized to get the writers that they represent to staff on the show if at all possible (all of which is likely shifting now as packing fees are being retired). Now, that doesn’t mean that agents are going to devote a lot of their time to staffing lower-level TV writing positions (Staff Writer, Story Editor, Executive Story Editor), as they do tend to favor putting their energy into better-earning mid- and upper-level writers. But agencies do have the mechanisms in place to power more staffing submissions than most management companies do.
Expect to take the first job you’re offered if you’ve not been in the room before
Anyone who’s been aiming to break into TV writing for any length of time knows that staff writing positions are not easy to come by. In fact, when you’re first trying to break in, it’s not about what show you are able to get staffed on, but rather about getting staffed, period. While everyone would love to start their experience in the writers’ room of their favorite show (and a few writers actually do), that first staff writing position is about getting the job, and making the most of it once you’re in the room.
Expect the hard work to begin once you get staffed
Once you have secured that coveted spot in the writers’ room, the hard work begins. It’s the staff writers’ job to do everything from helping to break story to writing up story areas or outlines if those are needed. Most staff writers are not guaranteed an episode at the start of the room, and are usually paired up with another, more experienced, writer if they do get one. The staff writer, along with the rest of the writing staff, is there to help the showrunner realize their show and bring it from concept to screen, whatever it takes.
Expect most writers to break into TV by staffing in a TV show’s writers’ room or finding success in features
While many writers would love to sell an original pilot and get their big break that way, the reality is that most content purchased and developed for TV is purchased from writers who already have a track record in either TV writing or writing features.
Expect to have to work your way up
Most writers start out as staff writers in the room, and work their way up, one season at a time, through the various writing levels, which break down as follows:
- Staff Writer
- Story Editor (SE)
- Executive Story Editor (ESE)
- Consulting Producer
- Supervising Producer
- Co-Executive Producer (Co-EP)
- Executive Producer (EP)
Unless the writer also happens to be the creator of the show, has had previous success in the feature space, or brings unique expertise into the room, they are not expected to start their TV writing track anywhere about Staff Writer. In a perfect world, the writer does such a stellar job on every TV writing season in which she’s in the room, that she is able to move up one level every season, working her way up the proverbial TV writer ladder. Of course, if she is able to sell her own show midway through her ascent, she may skip a number of rungs in the ladder.
Expect some writers to come up through support staff
Some writers begin their path to staffing in a TV writers’ room by first working on a TV writers’ room support staff, in one of the following positions:
- Writer’s PA
- Writer’s assistant
- Showrunner’s assistant
- Script Coordinator
While not all showrunners are friendly to the idea of promoting writers from within, from support to writing positions, many writers have gotten their start just this way. Some showrunners are known for pairing writers from support staff with more senior writers to co-write an episode, testing their skills and giving them an opportunity to impress.
Unfortunately, there are rarely “want-ads” for these positions, as they are quite coveted and therefore are rarely made widely available. While I have had writers answer ads and miraculously find themselves in a writers’ room at the conclusion of the interview process, most of the writers that I work with who ended up working in support staff have gotten their positions from mentors, instructors or friends who heard of an opportunity and shared it with them.
Expect the TV writing fellowships to remain a player in the staffing space
In Covid years, the network TV writing fellowships (ABC, NBC, CBS, WB) have not enjoyed the same staffing success of years past due to changing circumstances brought on by the pandemic. However, they have been and remain an effective way for breaking in, as they subsidize writers into writers’ rooms, covering either their entire salary for their first year, or a set number of weeks in the writers’ room (most usually 20), making the writer a free resource and therefore much less of a risk for the showrunner opting to bring them in. Because of this, submitting to the TV writing fellowships regularly becomes a yearly effort for most writers aiming to break into TV writing.