Your Writing Won’t Get You Hired: The Soft Skills You Need to Get the Job
This is a guest blog post from working writer Amadou Diallo whose TV credits include AMC’s Parish, Showtime’s Billions, and the upcoming Sammy Davis Jr. Bio-Series.
As I build a writing career in Hollywood, I’m often asked for advice about how to get that first job in a writers’ room. I have plenty to say, so those conversations tend to be long ones. But you’d be surprised at how little I talk about writing. Why? Here’s a dirty little secret: No one is hiring you because of your sample. Don’t get me wrong, you can’t be mediocre on the page and expect to break into an industry where the number of people seeking work far exceeds the jobs available. Your writing samples must be undeniable and showcase your ability to tell a compelling story that is expertly crafted. My point is that’s not enough for a showrunner to hire you. Because in a writers’ room, the time you actually spend writing is much less than you’d imagine. Sounds crazy. I’ll explain.
Creating a season of television is a uniquely collaborative process that requires you to bring a wide range of skills to the table. Let’s say you’re staffed in a 22-week room for a new drama series. You’ll likely spend the first several weeks tossing around broad ideas about character, story arcs and world building. It’s called blue-skying and it all happens on the fly. Somebody pitches an idea, another writer piggybacks off that pitch and expands it. Someone else relates the expanded pitch to a personal experience they’ve had which sends the original idea in yet another direction. During this process, the showrunner is weighing in with a yes or no that can mean starting over from scratch or moving on to repeat this process for another element of the show.
If all goes well, by week six or seven the room has enjoyed enough success to move on to breaking an episode, where you use those successful pitches to build the sequence of individual beats that make up that episode’s story. Again, this is a group effort, with writers pitching beats that get dismissed or refined until finally, the room has a complete episode on the board. If this is the episode you’ve been assigned to write, your next task is to verbally pitch these beats to the showrunner or show creator for approval.
This entire process of pitching ideas and breaking story is then repeated for every subsequent episode, during which time the room will collectively rework some of your story beats or move them to earlier or later episodes to accommodate inevitable character and plot changes that occur as the entire season takes shape.
The steps I’ve described are the meat and potatoes of what a writers’ room does. Every day is about problem solving and finding creative solutions to satisfy not just storytelling needs but the oftentimes competing demands from network and the studio execs. The work is exhilarating, exhausting, frustrating and inspiring, sometimes all in the same day.
At this point, let’s say 12 weeks into the room, enough episodes have been approved that it’s time for the actual writing to start. You go off by yourself to write your episode outline and then, after rounds of notes and revisions, the actual script.
Twelve weeks. That’s how long it can take before you fire up Final Draft and show what you can do on the page. So if the only skill you’re bringing to the room is your dazzling prose, you’ve just spent more than half of the gig without showing your worth. So just how should you provide value to the room? By mastering these collaboration skills.
Pitching is the lifeblood of the writers’ room and a great opportunity to shine as a new writer. But here’s the thing. Most pitches get rejected; that’s the nature of the beast. And as a new writer, your pitches simply aren’t going to be as good as those from colleagues drawing on years of experience making television. You’re going to take some L’s. Be okay with that. A pitch that bombs will feel like a disaster, but it isn’t. No one is expecting you to be great at this on day one. Being able to move past your bruised ego, however, and continue to contribute new ideas is a path to success, because if that failed pitch makes you go silent for the rest of the day, you’re not doing your job. So take your lumps with grace, learn from pitches that do succeed and stay in the game. Like with any new skill, pitching gets better with practice.
Bringing positive energy
Sitting alongside talented people creating characters that come to life on television screens is a great fucking job. And that’s the energy you want to bring to your room. Let the upper-level writer complain that there are no doughnuts in the conference room. You can be the one who’s excited about the daily lunch options (food is a big part of the writer’s room), who volunteers to do research, who offers to write beats on the board. Just started bingeing a great new show? Talk about it. Your colleagues love TV as much as you do. And never forget that as a working writer you’re part of a very small, select group. So be excited to show up for work! Don’t fake it, of course. But as much as you can, try to be the person everyone is happy to see walk into the office. A smile and a good attitude are a great start.
Reading the room
The challenge of being in your first room is that there’s so much about the job that you just can’t know until you get there. Seeing how others approach the job and adjusting your own behavior accordingly, is huge. For example, it’s hard just figuring out when to talk and when to keep quiet. Some showrunners want pitches from everyone without regard to title. Others lean more on their Co-EPs. You’ve got to figure out what works for your showrunner and adapt.
Another thing to pay attention to is the terminology other writers use when pitching their ideas. You never want to shit on another writer’s pitch, even if you think it doesn’t work. And there’s a language for that. ‘I love that idea. How about if we flip it?,’ is a great way to respect someone’s pitch while suggesting there may be more value in altering it. ‘Is there a world in which we do [x] instead of [y]?,’ is a much gentler way to propose an alternative pitch. Be an active listener in the room and you’ll pick up countless gems like these from more experienced writers that you can use in your own pitches. It’s a great way to level up in the room because the way you present an idea can be the difference between coming across as thoughtful versus annoying.
Being a team player
Working in the writer’s room is like being on a ship. And you’re not the captain. You’re not the navigator. Your job is to put oars in the water. When the captain says row, you row. Once a decision is made and a course has been charted, your job is to embrace the move as if it was yours. You won’t agree with every decision. But every decision is an opportunity to show you’re putting the show first and giving your all to making the best episode of television you can. Understand that a win for the room is a win for you. And people recognize when someone puts in the effort without complaint. Doing so consistently in your first room increases your chances of being in a second one.
Being nice…to everyone
Hopefully this is an easy skill to master. Treat everyone with kindness and respect, regardless of their title. Sure, everyone is going to be nice to the showrunner, but take some time to get to know the writer’s assistant, the script coordinator and the production assistant who orders your lunch. These are the folks trying to get exactly where you are. Their jobs are demanding and they’re doing it for very little pay. Let them know you see their effort and appreciate their contributions.
Some of these skills may come naturally, some will require practice. But they are all things that you can bring to the room on day one that will make you an asset to your showrunner. Which brings us back to getting hired. A showrunner will read dozens of writing samples before deciding who to interview. So if they’re meeting with you, it’s not to determine whether you’re a great writer; they’ve already decided you are. The meeting is to see if you have the soft skills needed for success in the room. Writers that do, make a showrunner’s job easier. Writers that don’t, no matter how talented, make it harder. Who would you hire?
TV and screenwriter Amadou Diallo is a Renaissance man with a career that has spanned multiple art forms. He’s toured and recorded as a jazz musician, had solo photography exhibitions and his journalism has appeared in The Washington Post, The Atlantic and the PBS NewsHour. Amadou was a 2021 Mentorship Matters fellow and is currently represented by Gersh and FWRD MGMT.