Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Courtney Meznarich

How to Get Your First Job as a TV Writer

“If you want to come out to L.A., first of all, there are so many different routes,” writer Marc Gaffen began. “There’s no one way.”

It’s a true statement but not groundbreaking by any means. I’ve asked just about every writer I’ve met how they landed their big break, and Gaffen is spot-on: every answer was different.

From cold-calling executives while pretending to be an agent to getting noticed while performing standup comedy, the stories that have led to a professional career in writing are varied and inspiring. And your story will be, too.

As long as you’re ready.

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Gaffen was ready and continues to display a particular set of behaviors that I’ve identified will lead to eventual success. His steadfast approach to breaking into T.V. writing includes some grit, some networking, working his way up the ladder, and of course, tons of writing. With this approach, he’s earned writing and story credits on the hit show “Grimm” and “New Amsterdam,” as well as a regular job as a script coordinator on both of those shows and many more. He also found time to write and publish a comic book series based on “Grimm” and an original graphic novel titled “Tuskers.”

The beauty of this journey is that it contains the recipe for what you can do today, starting right now, to be on your way to landing your first writing job. You’ll be ready for your lucky break because you’ll be prepared for it. And that, coupled with the following three ongoing behaviors, is how you will get your first job as a T.V. writer.

Make the Right Friends

“A good way is to become an agent’s assistant, and you can move up the ranks through the agency world as you’re continuing to write, and become friends with agents, so by the time you have maybe two or three scripts, you can show them to a friend who’s an agent, and maybe they’ll start repping you and get you on a T.V. show,” Gaffen said. But he cautioned: “Don’t ask them to rep you just based off of one script. I’d say you need to have two or three scripts: a one-hour drama, a half-hour comedy, a movie; Whatever is your genre, just have two or three versions of that.”

While it would be oh-so-convenient to have a great friend who happens to be an agent, remember that the best networks are built on genuine relationships – not just contacts who can help you get what you need. It will be challenging to make friends in the entertainment industry if the other person can smell your desperation. Be genuine, and think about how you can help the other person, not the other way around. Always pay it forward if a friend does help you out – whether that’s through introducing them to people you know, mentioning their script to someone who should read it, and buying them the occasional coffee or lunch. Catch up for the sake of catching up, not to find your next gig.

There are lots of places to meet people who work – or will eventually work – in entertainment.

Take a Screenwriting or Storytelling Class

You’ll meet new friends, and when those friends get jobs (or you do), you can all share knowledge so you can all get ahead.

Alumni Networks

Tap into the communities of people you already went to school with, and see if there’s a filmmaking alumni network. You’ll already have your alma mater in common, so it should be easy to make some connections.

Writing Groups

Online, in-person, and on social media, there’s no shortage of writing groups out there for you to join. Or make your own.

Panels and Mixers

The Writers Guild of America, The Writers’ Assistants Network, and more offer mixers and panels for all aspects of the biz. Go to these, put yourself out there, and make some friends! Get some phone numbers, or Instagram and Twitter handles so you can stay in touch.

Festivals and Contests

Festivals are a treasure trove of people who not only take an interest in film but who really want to talk about it. That’s what they’re there for! It will make it easier to get the conversation started if you do a little research on the participants ahead of time. For writing contests held online, congratulate your fellow participants and ask them about their projects. People love to talk about what they’re working on or accomplishments they’ve had.

Work Your Way Up Through the Ranks

“Another way is to go the T.V. production route by working on a T.V. show and move up the ranks that way,” Gaffen continued. “The only problem with that way is you’re working a lot of long hours, basically 12-14-hour days. The best way to overcome all of that is basically time management.”

This is a route that many aspiring writers take to eventually get to the writers’ room or sell their screenplay. The best part about this path is that you will learn SO much in the process, things you can only learn through hands-on experience in all of the jobs writers can do when they’re not physically writing. The pay won’t be great, but you’ll have a wealth of knowledge to move ahead.

To do this, you’re going to want to know a thing or two about how the entertainment business works. You also want to practice time management by keeping a schedule that allows you to work long hours Gaffen describes, and still make time to write. And lastly, be willing to make sacrifices. As much as I loathe the saying, “this season of your life” is about hard work and dedication if you want to make it to the next. You’re not settling for the season; you’re using it as a rung in your ladder.

Make Time for Writing

“You’re going to spend lots of time in the middle of the night writing. You’re going to spend a lot of your weekends in front of a computer writing. And you’re going to have to sacrifice those weekends to build your portfolio to show people,” Gaffen said. “Being able to write constantly and turn out material over and over and over again and have that big portfolio, that’s what’s going to separate you. I know so many people who say they’re a writer, and they just write one thing, and that’s it, and nothing else, and they think it’s perfect. Nothing is going to happen that way. You have to continue to write, create more and more content. The more content you create, the chances are that voice is going to develop into what people are going to want to read. And that voice is going to tell interesting stories. And they’re going to say, okay, this is good, but what else do you have? And you have two or three other projects you can show them, so they see that you’re serious and that you spent the time working on the projects and that you really want to become a writer.”

You know the saying, “You’ve got to have money to make money.” Well, the same goes for writing. You’ve got to have scripts to get work writing scripts, and you will need several. The more, the better.

Specifically for television, you should have at least one episodic T.V. spec script and at least one T.V. pilot script.

For the episodic script, write a script based on the format, characters, tone, voice, and structure of a contemporary, reasonably popular television show. This script will demonstrate that you can write based on someone else’s creation, which is exactly what you’ll be doing if you secure a writing position on a television show. Don’t color outside the lines on this one; you want the screenplay to mimic just about everything that the television show already has, but with a new story. Pick a show in the genre(s) that you prefer, but nothing too obscure, or the showrunner or network executive won’t know it well enough to judge whether the script is doing what it’s supposed to be doing.

You should also have a pilot T.V. script. This should be an original story that could later be developed into a series, with unique and memorable characters, a four-act structure, and enough going on that the script has legs. Demonstrate your voice and style here, and maintain proper storytelling and formatting.   

T.V. writing, or writing in general, is a journey, not a destination. You will always be meeting new challenges, raising the bar higher, getting better and more confident, meeting lots of writing friends, and finding new writing opportunities. The best news ever is that you can start right now! Successful writers all started somewhere, just like you, so take that first leap by choosing one or more of the behaviors above and start to build a habit around it. Then, choose another. And another.

Baby steps,

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