Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Courtney Meznarich

The Skills Every TV Writer Needs

Beyond the basics of writing an excellent television script, pilot, or an entire series, there are some key skills you'll need that don't get enough emphasis and attention in the topic discussion. Many television writers wish they had known this information before they leaped into the industry because writing for TV is unlike any other entertainment writing position out there.

In an interview with script coordinator Marc Gaffen, who has also written a few episodes of television himself, he revealed the essential skills that every single person who's had TV writing success has mastered - and these are things your writing program school teacher probably won't tell you about. Don't we love industry professionals like Marc, who help us peek behind the velvet rope of the entertainment industry?

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Marc has worked his way up the television writer ladder, having held many positions in addition to his most recent professional role as script coordinator. He keeps the drafts organized, the stories consistent, and the script delivery on time for Warner Bros., HBO, and NBC on hit shows such as "Grimm," "Lost," and "Mare of Easttown." 

Between observing writer behavior all day long, and being the occasional TV writer himself, here's what he knows to be true about the people who make it in this industry.

What Does a Television Writer Do? 

A staff writer on a TV show is responsible for writing the scripts that become television shows. They also write any other material, such as teleplays or short stories, which may be used in conjunction with an episode of television. The writers' job is to create characters who will have interesting plots and situations to make viewers care about what happens next. They must know how to tell a story through dialogue, action, description, and exposition. More importantly, they must work off of a pre-determined show idea developed by the show's creator and adopt that vision as their own in their television scripts. While the staffed writer does write an original script for each episode, the characters, their arcs, the setting, and even the ending are often determined early on by the showrunner or head writer to have a cohesive feel. A staff writer is not writing spec scripts but working collaboratively with other writers in the writers' room. 

How to Become a TV Writer

Marc told us that you'd need a few key skills if you want to become a TV writer. I'd argue that most of these skills are necessary for just about any television writing job, so read on and take notes! 

Write Like Someone Else

"The secret to writing television is what you write is really not about you," Marc explained. "You're on a show to work with the showrunner. The showrunner's the boss, and it's the showrunner's TV show. So, when you get on the show, you want to be able to write in the showrunner's voice and be able to implement the showrunner's vision."

Practice this skill by identifying your favorite television shows and writing episodes that fit into the established style and tone. 

Have Your Own Story Ideas

"Now, that's not to say that you can't have your own point of view and bring in your own ideas. That's a hundred percent what you want to do, but the TV show is the best representation of what the showrunner wants."

The writing staff is still expected to have lots of ideas for episodic content that you can pitch in the writers' room. A writer should also keep in mind that many shows are short-lived in this golden age of streaming, so there's a chance that you'll need to find new jobs frequently. Make a note of story ideas so you can use them in spec scripts and writing samples that will keep your portfolio fresh. 

Know Who's the Boss

"So, you're always going to be revising things based upon the showrunner's notes that you may agree with or you may not agree with. You just have to know that going in – that fights you have based on character – if you want to say, ‘Oh no, the character wants to go right,’ but the showrunner says, ‘No, the character should go left,’ you've got to go left. You can argue your point to the showrunner, but in the end, that person is the boss, and you have to do what they want to do."

When I think showrunner, I think Shonda Rhimes. Is that just me? She's a powerhouse, and you better believe that if you're going to fight for an idea against one of her own, you better have a great argument. That's how it's going to be in just about any writers' room. In other words, your opinions matter, but they don't matter THAT much. Ultimately, the responsibility of the show's success falls on the showrunner's shoulders, so they're always going to make decisions that they feel are best for the show. And you're going to do anything you have to do to support them in that mission. 

Don't Be Precious About Your Writing

"The best advice is not to be precious with so many things. That's doesn't mean you're not going to fight for what you believe in, but just know that things change, and the box will change. Sometimes you have to change an episode because an actor is sick, and you have to completely change one whole storyline that you really love because the actor's sick, and you have to put another actor in there that doesn't really make sense and the whole storyline has to go. So, you cannot be precious about it."

Not only is it very hard work to be a writer, but also you have to develop a very thick skin about your work. Know that critique is not personal, and that change is inevitable. 

Learn to Rewrite the Script

"When it comes to rewriting, learn to do it because that's the job. You get paid to rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite."

Hate rewriting? Then you will hate this job. Most of your time will be spent rewriting your script. 

Be Good at Solving Production Puzzles

"You have to love puzzles because every day there's going to be new problems, there's going to be new puzzles that you have to solve, and then you have to look at something which you may have worked really, really hard on for the past two months and then because of one location change, or a note from the network, or the showrunner completely flips what you wanted upside down, and you have to maybe curse under your breath for a couple of minutes and then brush your shoulders off, and get back into it, and try to figure out how to solve that puzzle."

Not only must you be willing to change and revise your work, but you must have solutions for some often tricky problems. 

Be Collaborative

"Because you're going to have so many hands involved in this script, it's not just your voice. It's 10 to 30 other people's voices also with their fingerprints on the script."

A career in television writing is totally different from writing for anything else in the entertainment industry, especially feature films. Though most creative writing jobs are collaborative, television writing takes collaboration to new heights during the scripting phase, and you need to be ready for that. If you do not play well with others or are particularly sensitive to feedback and critique, this is probably not the job for you. The writing staff will become your family, even if just for a short time. Respect them. 

In conclusion, television writing can be a rewarding job and one of the few writing jobs with a reasonably stable paycheck if you're good at what you do. I hope these tips help you as you begin your journey towards becoming a successful television writer. 

I'll look for your name in the credits,

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