When it Comes to Building a Screenwriting Career, Writing Samples are EVERYTHING

I’ve heard this phrase from new and emerging writers all too often: “I don’t want it to be JUST a writing sample.”

And… I get it. Selling a feature spec, or selling a TV pilot, is the dream, isn’t it? It’s the way in which most writers would love to break open their screenwriting career. And, for the record, it’s not unheard of; it does happen. Take, for example, my client Crosby Selander. Ever since I’ve known him, which is a few years now, Crosby had been writing both screenplays and TV pilots, but until recently, despite submitting to competitions and reps on an ongoing basis, has not gotten any traction. That is, until he became a finalist in the Script Pipeline screenwriting competition, got representation and had his spec sell to Legendary for a 7-figure deal, he effective “won Hollywood” (his managers’ words, not mine but… I whole heartedly agree!).

While that sort of breaking-in story sounds wonderful, and is the dream for many, the reality is that, both on the feature and the TV side, that is rarely how things work out, especially for writers aiming to break into the industry and get their screenwriting career started. But the truth is that it should never be script-sale-or-bust. In lieu of selling your screenplay or TV pilot, there is still plenty that a great writing sample can do for you.

What makes an effective writing sample?

First, it’s important to note that not every screenplay or pilot that a writer generates can become an effective writing sample as far as the industry is concerned. This doesn’t mean that the writer shouldn’t work hard to develop the material to make it as viable as possible, but for a writing sample to be industry-viable, it needs to be:

  • Well written, putting on display the writer’s craft as far as structure and storytelling standards are concerned, as well as specific unique story sensibility. Because we are looking to determine the writer’s unique take on story, adaptations rarely make great writing samples for first-time writers.
  • Conceptually interesting. If the material feels in any way derivative it will ultimately reflect poorly on the writer as far as his understanding of where the industry is, storytelling-wise, now.
  • Current. The material cannot and should not feel dated (i.e a great 90’s spec or a TV pilot that feels like a throwback to the stories we told episodically a decade or more back). To be effective, the writing sample has to feel right for today’s industry.
  • Unique and specific in its characters, world and/or dialogue, giving us something different and more distinctive than other material we’ve recently read. I’m talking about the sort of character work, world and dialogue that makes you sit up and take notice.
  • Voice-y and Noisy. The combination of the writer’s unique voice, her take on character, dialogue, story and action, and concept, one that is fresh, new, that we’ve not seen a million times before, or a whole new take on something that’s been often visited, is what helps a writing sample stand out.

When I interviewed him for my book BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES, Jeff Portnoy, one of the hardest working managers in the industry (who, full disclosure, represents a whole slew of my writers), told me:

“Right now, the best we can hope for when we take out a spec – of course we aspire to sell it to a studio but – we know that the odds are very low. We’re happy if we get it on The Black List, we’re happy if we get the writer an agent, or we’re happy if we get them lots of general meetings, get them put up for assignments. If the script doesn’t sell then it doesn’t sell but if those other things happen then we’re happy.”

So what can a great writing sample do for you? Let’s break it down:

A great writing sample should be able to help build a path towards your first representative, be they a manager or an agent (though, in my experience, 99 times out of a hundred it will be a manager). Whether surfacing to potential reps through referrals, contest placements, a great evaluation on The Black List website or even a strong, targeted query, a strong screenplay or pilot written on spec should help you get noticed by representation. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve certainly seen strong writing samples go out there and, frustratingly, not find a representation home, but in the very least they should net the writer an invitation to send the next project once it’s done and ready to show.

Your introduction to the industry
Once you have a manager (or agent) on board, your writing sample will become your calling card, your writerly introduction to the industry. With an effective advocate on hand, your writing sample will be distributed to executives and producers working on your specific genre/content space, and open doors for general meetings and industry relationships which can, ultimately, lead to staffing or writing assignments.

Position you for staffing
Whether you are a new writer looking to get staffed for the first time, or a working scribe working her way up and angling to position herself for a different kind of show than she has staffed on thus far, your writing sample is going to be everything. Here are just a couple of examples:

Just this summer, one of my clients, a writer who had never staffed before and who wrote a FANTASTIC revisionist history pilot that puts a new spin on a well-known event in world history, had the opportunity to be read by a showrunner who was putting together her very first room. While he didn’t ultimately get the job due to room dynamics that were out of his hands, his stand-out sample got him a showrunner meeting with the showrunner, her #2, and a Co-EP. They all loved his work, and asked that he keep in touch so he can stay in line for any future opportunities that come up. The material was strong enough not only to compel the showrunner to take the meeting, but to inspire a writer acquaintance to pass it on to the showrunner in the first place.

Another of my long-time clients, a mid-level writing-producer on a highly-regarded network TV show, recently made the decision to pivot away from network, and more towards the prestige premium cable and streaming shows out there that fit better with her natural sensibilities. But in order to facilitate this sort of a pivot, her representation advised that (you guessed it) she will need a new writing sample (as opposed to her 5-year-old pilot that has opened every door for her thus far) to position her for those prestige opportunities that will likely come up.

Position you for writing assignments
Much like staffing, the path to landing an Open Writing Assignment (OWA) starts with a strong writing sample, that gives the executive or producer reading it reason to think, due to its unique characters, stand out dialogue, strong voice or particular storytelling sensibility, that what the writer brings to the table could be just what the producer, production company or studio is looking to develop.

A writing sample will open the door for general meetings; if the writer and the executive connect in a general, then the writer may be considered for assignments in the future. As Gersh agent Sean Barclay told me:

“For 18 years I’ve only been hired by people I know, so the idea that there’s a job out here and we’re going to send this new person, new idea, new sample, you’ve never heard of them, let’s send them in for this job… They’re not getting that job. The fan base is built, the decision makers have lists of people that they’ve been tracking, writers they really love, with tons of notes on Excel spreadsheets about what these technicians did well.”

Reinvigorate stalled conversations
There is no better way than to get back in front of a producer or an executive, or to re-start representation conversations, than with an exciting new writing sample that gets its recipients enthused again about its writer.

Selling a feature screenplay or a spec pilot is certainly a worthy goal to aim for; every screenplay or pilot you write should be one that you work hard on, write, rewrite, vet and rewrite some more, until you believe that the spec project you have on your hands is good enough to be sold. But if it doesn’t sell, as is the case with most feature specs and spec TV pilots from writers that are still – to the industry – unknown, don’t fret. This is, by no stretch the end of the road. There is still so much that your writing sample can do for you.  It can be the lifeblood of a writer’s career, the engine that powers her to representation, to open writing assignments, to staffing opportunities in a writers’ room. It can be the foundation of which you will build the screenwriting career you are aiming for.