Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Courtney Meznarich

How to Move Up in the Writers' Room

When writers decide they want to be a professional writer for television, they usually have a few different endgames in mind. Some writers want to work in a writers' room, where they collaborate with other writers to break stories and write storylines based on the show's creator's original premise and characters. And for some writers, they ultimately want to be that showrunner, also called the executive producer in the credits. No matter your goal, if you want to become any person on the writing staff, you'll need to have a basic understanding of how a TV writers' room is structured.

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To help us out with the topic, we've invited television writer Stephanie K. Smith to share her experience working through the hierarchy of rooms on shows including "Carnival Row" (Amazon Prime) and the Emmy-nominated limited series "Genius." She's also written novels and audiobooks, and she's sold many original TV show pilots. Her breadth of both writing and life experience may explain why she's been able to climb the writers' room hierarchy and make it in the entertainment industry. Today, she offers advice on how to take your first step up that ladder and why every writers' room is a little bit different.  

What is a Writers' Room?

A writers' room is typically an office-type room where a group of writers meets to write storylines for your favorite TV shows. There are several different roles in a writers' room, including varying levels of experience, and writers work together to come up with stories throughout a network or cable television series. Suppose the show is being written for a streamer. In that case, the people in the writers' room typically write all of the episodes ahead of production, which Stephanie explains later in this interview. Writers' rooms can also be virtual, as they often were during the height of the COVID pandemic. Some writers' rooms have remained virtual so that the writers' don't have to reside in entertainment hubs such as Los Angeles, Atlanta, and New York.

"Basically, okay, a writers' room is composed of anywhere from five to 15 writers," Stephanie began. "Most of the sort of drama shows are somewhere around seven."

The longer the show, the more writers in the room. This also applies to the amount of time the writers' room will meet for; a longer show meets for a more extended period of time, and a shorter limited series has a shorter room. Depending on the type of show (cable vs. streaming, etc.), writers also have different deadlines. Where some writers might get a week to break and write a one-hour drama script, others might get two weeks total to outline an entire streaming series.

What are the Jobs in a Writers' Room?

"The first job you get on a show is a staff writer," Stephanie explained. "Some people skip that. I had sold six shows at the time that I staffed, and I still didn't get to skip that, but the guy above me did without any sales, so you just don't know. That's starting to change now where it's less so just if you're a white guy that that happens."

Basically, it's a ladder, she added.

"You do staff writer, then it's story editor, then it's executive story editor, then it's co-producer, then it's producer, then it's supervising producer, then it's co-executive producer, then it's executive producer."

What's the difference between all of these writing jobs? Check out our blog, All the Jobs in a Writers' Room, for a detailed description, including some tangential roles that can help you break into this writers' room hierarchy (writer's assistant, production assistant, script coordinator, etc.), what constitutes a mid-level writer, and how to join the ranks of upper-level writers. 

How Does a Writer Move Up in a Writers' Room?

"There are levels that you work your way up. Usually, you start at one, and hopefully, if you're doing a good job, you rise rather quickly. And sometimes, even if you're doing a good job, you don't. There are so many catches involved," Stephanie said.

One catch? The showrunner and the tone of the room itself. This hierarchy is not set in stone, and the executive producer / showrunner gets to run the room how they see fit. No one likes a know-it-all, so in essence, know your place among your fellow writers.

"I think in theory, and in the way that television used to work, there's a hierarchy of what's expected of you at certain levels. And so I don't think there's as much expected when you're at the staff writer, story editor, executive story editor level and so on and so forth," Stephanie said of the lower-level positions in a writers' room. But, she added, "I never approached it that way, and maybe that's because, you know, I started staffing at 39, and I had already done all of this other stuff and lived this life. So, I just come in, and I throw it all at the wall, and that happens to work in the rooms that I'm in, but I think in some there is a hierarchy where you don't speak as much if you're lower level or whatever. But, the job itself is essentially the same."

From lower-level writers to senior writers, everyone in the writers' room is there for the same purpose: write amazing episodes that keep the audience coming back for more, in line with the showrunner's vision. As with any job in entertainment, the people you're surrounded with will probably become colleagues or connections for future work, so treat everyone with respect and don't be afraid to make friends. Writers' rooms often require long hours of collaboration, so be ready to get cozy and settle in with your new coworkers.

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Depending on the length of the show, you'll be working with other professional writers closely and often, so understand your position and know what you're aiming for.

Read the room,

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