A television writing career can be rewarding; you play an integral role in some of the shows that become pop culture phenomenons, you work alongside uber-talented people, you earn a reasonably steady paycheck. You get to tell stories for a living! It sounds like a dream job for any creative person, right? It certainly can be, so let's talk about how to build a career like this.
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To help, we brought in prolific writer Stephanie K. Smith. She's written scripts for shows including Amazon Prime's "Carnival Row" and the Emmy-nominated limited series "Genius." She's also written novels, audiobooks, and, as you'll see below, many, many TV show pilots. The latter is almost a prerequisite to get staffed on any TV show today, as Stephanie explained to us. But it also comes down to who you know. Ugh, doesn't it always? There's good news, though. There are many worn pathways to take on your journey to becoming a staffed writer on a television show, and while your career path will no doubt veer slightly, we're going to share the roadmap with you.
But first ...
What is a Staff Television Writer?
A staff writer is one of the first jobs you will get in the writers' room on a television show. The writers' room comprises several positions, and we've written about all of the jobs in the writers' room with descriptions in this blog. The staff writer's job is to help break stories and episodes for the TV series for which they were hired, whether that's a drama series, a comedy series, or something in between. Staff writing jobs are highly sought after in the screenwriting world because it means a steady paycheck (at least for the season) and gives writers a great place to make connections who can help find their next job.
How Do You Get Started?
As I mentioned earlier, there are a few ways to break into this business. No two journeys will be the same, but most writers use at least one of these strategies. While I don't specifically mention school below (film school is cost-prohibitive for many people, and it's not totally necessary), attending school for screenwriting will give you a head start in the networking department, at the very least.
Start as An Assistant
A writer's assistant job is an ideal starting place because it actually puts you in the writers' room. You'll be responsible for taking thorough notes, maintaining the show bible, proofreading scripts, and maybe even researching the writers.
With that said, another position that people overlook is the production assistant job. While you're not technically in the room - your responsibilities center more around answering phones, getting coffee, and handling mostly non-writing tasks - the job gets your foot in the door. One of the hardest things to do in this industry is to meet people, and this is a sure-fire way to do it.
Apply to TV Writing Programs
Several popular (read competitive) TV writing programs and fellowships put you at the center of the action. These programs will train you AND pay you, all while you hone your writing skills and meet tons of fellow writers who will help you launch your career. This experience is an excellent way into television writing, but you've got to have the chops first. Many writers want into programs such as the Nickelodeon Writing Program (applications accepted starting July 1, 2022), NBC's Writers on the Verge, and the Disney General Entertainment Content Writing Program (applications accepted starting May 2022). You'll need more than one script under your belt, as many applications require multiple script submissions, including pilots and spec scripts.
Make an Impression With Your Own Work
This tip is less of a stepping stone on your journey and more of a requirement. To land a job, you've got to have a strong portfolio, not just one script. You may be asked to show a script before you apply for a job, or your work may be so standout incredible that it gets you noticed by a showrunner who then asks you to apply. Either way, consider having a few TV pilots that show your range (think kids shows, comedies, dramas, etc.), at least one spec script for a show that's currently airing (to show that you can write based on someone else's original ideas and characters), and maybe even a web series to show you can execute on your ideas and that other people like your stories. Build up your range of experience before you start applying.
Tell Everyone You Know That You Want to Work
The tricky thing about the TV business is that jobs aren't always listed. For example, you're not likely to find a job posting for a writer's assistant. You need to know people who know when these jobs become available. That goes back to the age-old tip in the entertainment industry, which is to build your network, but we all know that building a strong network takes years. So, in the interim, tell everyone you know that you are looking for an entry-level writing position. Post it to your social accounts. Email friends. Make it the topic of conversation at the coffee shop. Get loud! You never know who might be listening.
You can also cold call to ask about open positions or get your name on a list to be notified when something becomes available. Who knows, someone might appreciate your tenacity and call you right up.
Don't mess it up in the fourth quarter when you do get the call that you're in the running for the position. Your final interview will be with the showrunner, and they're going to want to know what YOU can do for THEM. What unique perspective or skill do you bring to the writers' room, and what makes you stand apart from anyone else who wants this job? Maybe it's your upbringing, the story of how you landed where you are now, why you're a perfect fit for this particular show, or a funny anecdote. Be ready to answer this question with all your might.
What Are the Paths You Take Once You Get Going?
If you've read this far, you've probably been thinking ... "but when is she going to mention getting an agent?" Well, here it is. You don't need an agent to get your first job as a television writer, and heck, you may not need one EVER if you plan to continue writing for television. The truth is that an agent will not be interested in anyone who hasn't found their own work first. And while you will want to find an entertainment attorney who can help you negotiate your contract, they're unlikely to help you find work either. Eventually, you'll want to consider finding a manager who can help you write the right things to land your next job, but again - they're probably not going to get you any jobs. That's your job.
If you are lucky enough to land on a television show with multiple seasons, you'll have the opportunity to move up through the writers' room hierarchy. You can also do this if you end up jumping from show to show, but it's a bit of a "one step forward, two steps back" scenario. You may have to repeat some of the steps in this hierarchy.
And the writing staff hierarchy goes:
Executive story editor
While staffing seasons are changing thanks to streaming TV, primetime network shows hire writers during set times throughout the year. Staffing season begins in April or May when showrunners start reading submitted scripts and interviewing potential writers. They'll hire writers typically no later than June after a network has ordered a show to series. On the other hand, cable networks staff year-round since shows on cable air year-round.
How Do You Make Money, and What Kind of Money?
Perhaps the best thing about being a staffed writer is that you'll earn a steady salary for the duration of the season. This allows you to plan your finances, which can be challenging when you're a freelancer. Staffed writers are almost always members of the Writers' Guild of America, meaning they're unionized and pay is subject to a fixed scale and minimums.
According to this LA Times article, staffed writers will earn around $3,500 for a weekly salary for a set duration. As you move up in the hierarchy, that amount increases for upper-level writers. "As a second-tier story editor, you're up to $6,000 per week," the article states. So, you're looking at anywhere between $100,000 per year to start to $300,000 as you're promoted. It depends on how many episodes you ultimately write, if your name is on the script, and how long the season lasts. For a network, that's anywhere from eight to ten months out of a year, or half that for a streaming show, although I've heard of even shorter durations for certain streamed series.
So, now that you understand how it works let's layer this guide with a real-life story from Stephanie. You'll hear some similarities in Stephanie's journey toward becoming a staff writer as the methods I've outlined above.
"Well, I sold my first pilot in 2007. I had an idea for a show. It was a fully interactive series that existed across platforms. I had a manager at the time. He introduced me to a producer. The producer had a deal with a studio. The studio said yes. They gave me a little money to make a sizzle reel, and we took it out and pitched it at network. And I sold it!
And it was a fluke. It was the first time I had ever pitched anything, and it got ordered to pilot. The strike happened, and all these crazy things happened. I continued selling pilots for several years after that. I then went through a lull. I went through a divorce, and during that period, I could never get staffed. Like, I wanted to be staffed, but I don't think anybody really knew what to do with me. It was a different time in the business, I think, than it is now. But in part, because I didn't know the right kinds of people, right? Because there are two tracks in television. There's the development track, and there's the staffing track. And so I didn't know the right people.
What happened was, when I came out of my divorce, I wrote a pilot. I felt that I had gotten very pigeonholed into writing these sort of young, girly things that had more to do with the way that I looked and the way people perceived me than what I actually wanted to be writing, like it was always getting tweaked and vanilla-fied. It was also a different time in the business. It was before #MeToo. It was before a lot of stuff had changed about what you can write and what you can sell. And so, I wanted to write a show that would put me in a different category. So I wrote a script. It had four leads, and three of them were male, and one of them was female, and it had a little bit of a mystery component. And I sold that. And there was a showrunner attached to that. But what happened was that show didn't go past the initial sale, but the showrunner hired me on "Carnival Row." And that was the only way that I would have gotten staffed, was having that level of connection of someone that I worked with, that my team stayed on, and we kept saying like, hey, I'd be good for this show. And then he hired me, and it went from there. But it was through the connection of him having been attached to my project that was set up somewhere else the year before."
Of course, timing and luck come into play in Stephanie's story (as they always do), but you should feel confident in the fact that you can control the other variables on your path. In summary, you've got a few sure-fire ways to break in, an outline of the material you need to have in your portfolio, and an understanding of the career that you're going after. Ultimately, talent and tenacity make up the winning combo in the entertainment industry.
You've got the map, now let's get on the road,