"There's no one way to do it," writer Marc Gaffen began when we asked him how he finally landed that first, sweet, sweet produced episode of television with his name in the credits.
Marc has worn many entertainment industry hats, from camera assistant to his current role as a script coordinator on top shows including "Mare of Easttown" and past hits like "Grimm" and "Lost." But the one thing each job has had in common? They all put Marc on the path to break into television writing.
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So, you want to write for TV, too?
So as not to bury the lede, I'll reveal right now that Marc is still not a full-time television writer. He's been climbing the ladder (and taking a few detours) since he first moved out to LA in the early 2000s. His journey is similar to many part-time writers in Hollywood: they may write in their free time like it's a full-time job, but they're putting in hours in other roles on television shows to make ends meet. Is it easy to become a TV writer? The short answer is no. The long answer? Well, that's below!
How do you become a television writer?
As Marc is quoted as saying above, there's no single way to break into television writing that's going to work for everyone, every time. But, after interviewing enough people who have managed to accomplish the feat, we've identified patterns:
Whether you go to undergraduate school or grad school for creative writing, dramatic writing, or another film or television program, or you earn your chops from Google university, the number one thing you need to know is what the heck you're doing when it comes to television writing. Study the great TV shows and the genres you want to write, research who's producing what, analyze TV scripts and what makes them work, and most importantly – always make time for your own writing.
Move to LA or Another Industry Hub
We live in a digital world. So many people are working and even networking remotely. New film hubs are popping up all over the US – think Atlanta, Austin, and Albuquerque – and all over the world. Despite these positive steps forward, Hollywood is still the place to be if you want to be a TV writer. That's where most of the production happens, and most of the industry professionals reside, and it makes it that much easier to access if you're living in Los Angeles.
Write Spec Scripts and Have Ideas
You should be sitting on a pile of great original series concepts, series outlines, and some completed spec scripts for episodes of your favorite shows on TV. You should have at least one excellent pilot script for an original pilot idea. This demonstrates range. Unlike a movie writer where you're executing on your original script idea when you write a screenplay, when writing for television you're writing for someone else and with other professional writers. You should be able to show that you can pick up the general idea of a television show from its creator, write television scripts in that style, and stay true to the characters and their motives. Develop your original voice and original story ideas, but show that you can write in someone else's voice, too.
Get a Job
It takes a lot of people to bring a television series to life, and that is GREAT news for you. That means there are lots of jobs, even if they're not the ones you want, and even if your responsibilities have nothing to do with writing at first. From sorting the mail to assisting the camera operators, no job is too small when you're trying to break into television writing. Many of these jobs require no previous experience. Every job offers a chance to learn about the process, demonstrate your know-how, and meet people who can help you reach that next rung of success.
Find ways to meet people in the industry. You won't get far if you sit behind your computer all day. You need to make yourself and your content visible. Attend meetups, industry panels, networking events, and writing conferences. Join writing groups to share your original pilot script for feedback or grow your ideas for your original series. Attend a writing workshop. Go to coffee shops where other writers hang out. Get uncomfortable and put yourself out there. It's imperative.
Internships, Writing Fellowships, and Contests
We post a ton of screenwriting-adjacent internships on our website. And while many don't pay, most offer flexibility to keep a full-time job or course load if you're a current student. Fellowships will put you front and center with writing industry folk. And while the competition is stiff in TV writing contests, you'll never know where you rank if you don't put your work out there.
Persistence, patience, and a really tough skin are necessary to become a television writer. And we're not just mentioning this in passing. Every television writer we've met has been through the wringer and kept going anyway.
With all that said, here's the path that Marc took to become a TV writer and get credit for his first produced episode of television. He continues to follow a similar path today, with an increasing deal of success as his network and resume grow.
Attended Ithaca College in New York and earned a bachelor's degree in Radio, Television, and Digital Communication
Moved to Los Angeles without any job offers or contacts
Faxed out 100 resumes to television shows to try to land a job
Heard back from one TV show, "The Bernie Mac Show," that offered him a job as a camera crew PA
Meanwhile, worked as a freelance camera assistant on music videos, short films, television productions, and pilots
Got a job as an office production assistant on the TV show "Jack and Bobby" at Warner Bros.
Advanced to the role of assistant to the line producer on the NBC show "Las Vegas"
Learned the role of script coordinator through previous contacts and got a chance at his first script coordinator job on Warner Bros. "Rizzoli & Isles"
Landed on the show "Grimm" as a script coordinator and learned the show inside and out
Was invited by the showrunner to pitch an episode idea for "Grimm" as a reward for a job well done
Pitched a series outline for an episode of "Grimm" that the writers like, and the writers help mold it into episode 316, "The Show Must Go On"
Marc said of landing his first episode of produced television:
"It's a little bit different nowadays because most shows don't have 22 episodes, but I was lucky enough to be on a show that had 22 episodes, "Grimm." And usually, as seasons go on, the showrunners reward the assistants and the writer's assistants and the script coordinator by letting them pitch episodes, and if they like the episode you pitch, they'll let you write it, and that's basically what I did. There was an assistant on the show I was friends with. We decided to team up, and we pitched them a comic book series based on the show "Grimm," and at the same time, we also pitched them an episode. They liked both ideas, and they allowed us to do both, which was absolutely fantastic. We got to create a whole "Grimm" comic book universe which was a dream come true to a comic book fan. And it was published by Dynamite Entertainment which is a very established comic book brand. And then to write an episode in the third season, people liked my idea, and you're in the room. When you're working with all the writers, you're working with them 60-hour plus weeks. You become really friendly with them, and they become your teammates, and everyone wants to see you succeed, and so as you're pitching the idea, breaking the idea, the whole room comes together usually for the people who are moving up to make sure that it becomes the best episode that it can be."
Since that first produced episode of television in 2013, an entire decade after Marc moved to Los Angeles, he's had additional writing opportunities come his way, from writing on NBC's "New Amsterdam" to developing a graphic novel titled "Tuskers" about elephant poaching in Africa. He continues to script coordinate as well. Meanwhile, he tries to keep up his writing skills and keep his writing portfolio fresh, but he admits it is a grind to write week after week, year after year. He keeps going anyway.
How long does it take to become a TV writer?
The answer depends on how you define a TV writer. As in Marc's case, he's written for TV but works full time as a script coordinator. He's been at it for two decades. We've talked to other writers who broke into TV writing in five years and more who were finally staffed in a writers' room full time after ten years. Keep in mind that the amount of time a writer will spend in a room is also changing. Writers used to stay on throughout a season of television, but with the advent of streaming, writers will get all their episodes written in a couple of months, and then they'll be cut loose. Next, they have to find another job. TV writing is a hustler's job.
In summary, if you want to break into TV writing, remember these key takeaways:
Be persistent. If you want something badly enough, you should never give up. It may not happen overnight, but eventually, someone will notice your work and offer you a chance to prove yourself.
Networking matters. The adage still holds today – when one door closes, another opens. So, network with others in your field, attend industry events, join organizations, etc., and build relationships. This could lead to future employment or even help you land freelance gigs.
Write every day. Even if you only manage 20 minutes per session, try to stick to this schedule. Your brain needs rest too!
Stay positive. Always look forward rather than backward. Remember: things change quickly in Hollywood. One minute you're unemployed; the next, you're being offered a staff position.
Have fun. Yes, it's hard work, but it shouldn't feel like drudgery. Try to enjoy the process. After all, you're doing something you love.
Nothing worth doing or having come easily,