We mentioned earlier that you generally won’t be able to submit a spec to an existing show for consideration as a writer until you can have an agent do it for you. So, everything depends on your landing an agent – but it’s very hard to land one without professional experience. How do you go about getting yourself established professionally and signed on with representation?
There are three general approaches to finding your way in. All of them, of course, require a lot of hard work, persistence, and dedication. Your main goal is get your work out there, get it honed to a professional sheen, and get enough attention for it that you’ll be considered professionally, by an agent or someone else who can get you work.
One of the best starts you can possibly have for a TV writing career is to go through a fellowship, especially one run by a studio.
Television writing fellowships vary somewhat from place to place, but in general, they’re training grounds for studios to develop new writing talent, with the goal of placement on the writing staff of a television program in production. In a fellowship, you will write scripts and have them read for feedback by professional writers and execs; you’ll attend lectures by people in the business; you’ll have opportunities for working with a production while you’re still in the fellowship. Sometimes, a fellowship will arrange to have you placed with a show at no cost to that show, so you’ll be talent that’s free to them, while at the same time, you gain invaluable experience working in a real production environment.
Some fellowships are paid; some are not. Some may actually have you pay, though that is increasingly rare.
Once you’re ready, a fellowship program will work to get you placed with a going production, both within the studio that runs the fellowship, and outside it as well. You generally won’t be under any obligation to continue with that study once you finish the fellowship.
Of course, once you’ve gone through the fellowship, and especially if you get placed, you’ll be in a much better position to attract and sign with an agent.
You might think of this route as having your body follow your script to Hollywood. You’ve already gotten attention; you’ve already got a reason to move to Los Angeles. Do well at one of these fellowships, and you’ll be in a great position for landing an agent and getting placed on a writing staff. If you’re accepted into one of them, absolutely take it. It’s an opportunity you absolutely do not want to pass up.
Some of the best fellowships for TV include:
The Disney•ABC Writing Fellowship: One of the best-known and well-respected, this is a one-year, paid fellowship with participation of some of the best in the business. More than 200 current working professionals have gone through this fellowship, including Jane Espenson herself. The fellowship does not require any previous experience, but it does require an excellent writing sample. Details for requirements for the next fellowship will be posted summer 2009.
There are also specialized programs for Daytime TV, Native American, and Latino writers.
The Warner Bros. Television Writing Workshop: Split into separate workshops for Drama and Comedy, these are four-month programs meeting on Friday nights. The fellowship is unpaid, but is one of the most prestigious. The fellowships require a spec script of a current TV program in their genres.
The Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship: Another paid, (up to) one-year fellowship, the NWF is three-phased, offering experience in writing, pitching, and networking with industry professionals in both live-action and animated television. It requires a spec script based on an existing comedic half-hour television series.
Fox Entertainment Group Diversity Development: This fellowship looks for original spec pilot TV scripts, comedy or drama. This is a six-week Writer’s Boot Camp where the selected writers will consult with professionals and WBC alumni to improve their scripts and bring them up to professional quality. Past successful scripts have been considered for pilot production at Fox.
This is a Diversity program; the program is looking for minority applicants or “non-diverse applicants” interested in writing about inherently diverse issues.
Writers On The Verge: This is NBCUniversal’s writing fellowship, a ten-week program for aspiring writers they believe to be, literally, “on the verge” – who are “almost there” and just need a bit more polishing to be ready to write for TV. They require a spec script for an existing program. Like the Fox fellowship, they especially encourage minority and other diverse groups to apply.
There are plenty of other, smaller TV writing contests and programs. Do plenty of thorough research and find out what’s out there. Get your scripts out there and get some attention – the more attention your scripts have gotten, the more you can put on your résumé, and you’ll be more likely to attract professional interest.
Scriptwriters Network, a group of writers created “for writers and industry professionals,” is based in L.A. They have a Television Outreach Program which provides feedback and critiques on televisions scripts. But it’s also a sort of a hybrid program where scripts will be evaluated through multiple phases, judged against industry standards, and if it rises to the top, the program’s runners will meet with the script’s writer and start to develop a list of potential producers, showrunners, and executives who may be contacted on the writer’s behalf. A number of working writers have taken this path.
Slamdance Film Festival holds a Teleplay Competition along with its various writing competitions throughout the year. It looks for both Drama and Comedy scripted television entries, as well as for unscripted, reality-type TV programs.
There are other competitions and fellowships for different kinds of screenwriting, too, like the Nicholl Fellowship of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. American Zoetrope holds a periodic feature screenplay contest, and Sundance Film Festival holds its Screenwriter’s Lab. And again, Slamdance Film Festival holds different kinds of writing contests throughout the year. While these are not about writing for television, they certainly offer valuable screenwriting experience and, very importantly, networking opportunities.
The other general common route is having your script follow your body – you move to Los Angeles, write scripts, look for work, and try to find a way in. This is a harder road to follow.
Generally, you’d sign up with temp agencies and look for openings in the studios, as close to the writing staff of a production as possible. You meet as many people as you can, join writers’ groups (such as Scriptwriters Network, mentioned above), befriend as many people in the business as you can, and find out what’s out there and who can help you get where you want to be.
One excellent way in is to land a job as a writers’ assistant or script coordinator on a production. You’ll work closely with the writing staff and showrunner of the production you’re on, will gain immense experience, and may eventually be able to prevail upon the writers or possibly the showrunner to read your script. In some ways, these jobs are harder to get than the actual writing staff jobs, because there are at least several writers, but only one assistant or script coordinator. Because they’re a great way to get in, every aspiring writer wants the job.
You could also work for a talent agency and work your way into a position where you’ll be able to ask an agent to read your material. If you are able to find a way in to an agency and get your script read, even if you’re not signed on as talent, they may agree to “hip-pocket” you, help you along the way, and sign you once you get hired.
Always be willing to take advice and feedback from professionals in the industry, but don’t go into it expecting to sell a script or to be hired on. Take it for what it is – valuable information and the cultivation of a valuable relationship.
For first-hand tales from the front by someone who’s currently working this path, “Amanda the Aspiring TV Writer” maintains a blog of what she’s done, what she’s learned, and what’s out there in terms of support groups, networking, etc., at aspiringtvwriter.blogspot.com. She currently works as an agency assistant, and her blog full of advice on writing, opportunities, and getting to where you want to be – not only from her own experience, but also through input and interviews from professionals in the business. She also provides links to fellowships, contests, networking opportunities, and many other resources of interest to the aspiring TV writer.
Blazing Your Own Path
This may be the longest shot of all, but in this Internet age, it’s a possibility which didn’t exist before.
In a nutshell, write and produce your own material and put it on sites like YouTube or Vimeo, where it will get noticed by the right people. Shows like South Park or Sci-Fi Channel’s Sanctuary began as Web series and were picked up for production. While this is unlikely to happen, you may still draw attention to yourself for your writing. Agents or producers may notice your work and be interested in seeing more.
Once You Have An Agent
Once represented, your agent can begin submitting scripts to existing productions on your behalf.
Your agent will actually shield you from a lot of this process and will be submitting your work to shows without necessarily telling you which. This isn’t a bad thing, because you’re blissfully unaware of all the rejections and really only hear about the shows which want to see more from you.
If all goes well, you’ll eventually find yourself on the writing staff of a TV show.
WORKING ON A WRITING STAFF
Once placed, a typical staff writer spends a great deal of time in the show’s writers room, working with the other members of the writing staff to work through stories. The story ideas may have been generated by the staff as a group, from one or a few of the writers, or they may be working from the elements of a long story arc developed by the showrunner. Or, they may have worked with the showrunner to develop that arc from a set of core ideas as to where he or she wants to take the show. However they’re conceived, there are always stories in development which the staff is tackling at any given time.
Together, as a group, they break down a story, work through the plot, decide the act breaks, and come up with everything that’s going to happen in the episode – plot, subplots, scenes, locations, characters, everything. When that story is fully developed and then approved by the showrunner, a writer is then assigned to write the script for that episode based on the outline created by the staff as a whole.
Then, the writer will get back notes. These will be notes from the showrunner for changes they’d like to see to the script. They can be flat out corrections, or requests for more detail in certain areas, or even a need for wholesale rewrites.
Once the story is written, approved, and in production, the writing process doesn’t end. There are always going to be rewrites throughout the actual production of the episode. Actors will have suggestions and corrections according to how well they know their characters. Certain things which looked fine on paper may not actually work as written. Certain actors may not be available for guest roles, or certain props or effects may not be suitable and will have to be written out. Almost until the finished episode is in the can, rewrites can and will happen.
As your career progresses and you climb up the writer ranks, you do start to gain control over your scripts that you didn’t have as a more junior member of the staff. You start to be able to make decisions about your episodes and do, as mentioned above, many of the things directors would normally do on a film.
On a film, the director has control over all of the creative decisions and can – and often does – make a film very different from what was in the writer’s mind, much to the writer’s chagrin. A writer of a television series, after they’ve climbed the ladder to producer, will work closely on the production of those scripts, often doing the sorts of things directors would do on a film – decisions about casting, costumes, sets, props, working with actors on re-writes.
You also may start to take on some of the more traditional non-writing producer tasks. How much you do varies by production, how much you’re asked to do it, and how much you’re willing to do it.
The credits of a TV program usually list a long line of writers and producers. There’s a ladder to writers’ titles, and they can sometimes be confusing because some of them are shared with other people who do very different things.
Television programs will have line producers who are concerned with the budgetary and business aspects of the show. These are the people whose names come after the “Produced By” credit. They can be Producers, Supervising Producers, Executive Producers, or hold other titles. They usually aren’t involved in the writing and instead tend to other production matters.
The writers go through a series of titles as well. These don’t mean that much of a change in the actual job done for the show, even though the job titles are very different. As a first-year staff writer, your title is exactly that – Staff Writer. Your second year, you become a Story Editor. The job isn’t any different; you still do the same things, but you have that new title. You then work your way up through Executive Story Editor, Co-Producer, Producer, Supervising Producer, and Co-Executive Producer. These are all automatic title promotions based on your years of experience. You may also see credits such as “Consulting Producer,” which would often be an experienced writer who’s not a full-time member of the staff.
And if you do get the opportunity one day to bring your own project to the air, or to be a showrunner on an existing show, you’ll be an Executive Producer and at the top of the television writing business.
There’s a very great deal to learn about writing for television. Hopefully, this article has given you a good start at understanding what’s involved, and a grounding for finding out what else you’ll need to know. If you think it’s something you really want to do, take what you learned here, learn as much more as you can, and give it your best shot. New writers are getting in all the time; one of them could be you!
Writing for Television - Part 2: The Practice of Television WritingThis article was originally published in forum thread: Writing for Television - Part 2: Ways In, Etc. Now Up started by David Jimerson View original post