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?
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
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
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
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
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
Hate rewriting? Then you will hate this job. Most of your time will be spent rewriting your script.
Be Good at Solving Production Puzzles
Not only must you be willing to change and revise your work, but you must have solutions for some often tricky problems.
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,