Introduction – The Point of It All
Hello friends, a while back I wrote about writing a TV Spec Script. But what happens after writing the TV spec script? How does that get you into the writers room on a TV series? Well, I’m going to shed some light on how the TV writers room works and what the vibe will be like going in.
The TV writing process is very collaborative. It takes a team to set the stage of each season and write all the individual episodes that you see on your small screen. “Written by” names the person or writing team who wrote the script, but the process in whole is a team effort.
If you have any questions about the content of this post, don’t be afraid to shoot me an email and I’m happy to help you out.
“Character is character and voice is voice, which translates nicely from writing novels to writing TV. But the process is different. You have a writer’s room, people pitch you jokes and you collaborate.” - Jennifer Weiner
Prerequisites – Things You Should Know
In order to understand how writers rooms work, you’ll need to think in terms of how one gets a job for a TV. The first step is knowing what networks are hiring. By this point, you’d have to have an agent or manager who has read your beautiful spec script and is showing it around to their connections in the industry.
It’s also pertinent that you know how to get a job. The spec script is your way in the door, but you’ll also have to be in the general area of where TV shows are written. Yes my friend, you may have to move to LA (if you live in the US) or some other location. So far, that’s where a bulk of TV shows are written. Film takes place in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Toronto, Quebec, and other places, but to be a TV writer, you’ll have to move to where the writing is taking place to attend the meetings and physically be in the writers room.
Before taking the dive into the TV industry, understand that there are many stressors in the TV environment. Not only is it fast paced and requires a lot of time and energy, but it’s also quite uncertain. TV shows of all kinds appear and disappear without so much as a blink of an eye. You could have a job one day, and then the next, no. Be mindful that your fate is not always sealed in a writers room. What matters are ratings and how much revenue the show produces. Even if it’s a critically acclaimed show, it can be canceled if the revenue stream isn’t there.
Warm-Up – Before You Dive In
Take a few moments to watch the Showrunners Documentary on Tubi TV linked here. It shows the inner workings of the writers room and describes how TV writing works. Also, the “showrunners” are the people who decide the overall tone of the show, meet with the executives at the network, and sometimes write episodes (generally major episodes like finales and premieres). Give that a good looksee. The Showrunners Documentary is also a book if you prefer that.
Take note of some of these concepts:
Preparing the beat sheet
Edits and changes
Censorship, industry standards
“The really important people in TV are not the directors; they're the writers.” -Mary Harron
The Many “Writers” in the Writers Room
There are actually multiple “writers” on a show. Take a look at all these particular roles that are actually “writer” roles. These roles are determined essentially as a ranking. Those with more experience are higher up that ladder and paid more. The higher you are also determines your power and say in the writers room.
Note: If you live outside of the US, these roles may vary in name and the level of responsibility.
Showrunner or Executive Producer
Every TV series has an “Executive Producer” who is oftentimes the “Showrunner” as well, who makes the final call on scripts, casting, writers on staff, etc. More often than not the Showrunner writes for the show as well. Generally these episodes include the pilot (the very first episode), season premieres, season or series finales, and other major episodes. Also the Showrunner is generally credited as the “Creator” of the show. Think of showrunners like Joss Whedon (Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Tim Kring (Revolution, Heroes), and Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, How to Get Away With Murder). And any “Co-Creators” of the show will likely be Executive Producers or Co-Executive Producers.
Not all Executive Producers are writers on the show, however. They are oftentimes called “non-writing Executive Producers” who assist the showrunner in everyday operations.
It doesn’t matter if the “Co-Executive Producer” wrote the episode or not, he or she is the last person to read and approve the script before the showrunner. The Co-Executive Producer is sort of like a Vice Principal, there in the absence of the showrunner. The Co-Executive Producer is the right-hand man or woman to the Showrunner.
In absence of the aforementioned producers, the “Supervising Producer” oversees story development and the writing process. They are more hands-on than the higher up “writers” and run the room more often than not. Executive Producers and Co-Executive Producers do spend time in the writers room, however they are also beholden to the network and other associations who are in constant communication with the production team.
“Producers” do a variety of tasks for the show they work on. They are experienced writers but also have their hands in direction, casting, and other aspects of putting each episode out. The “Staff Writer” is their subordinate.
Just as the Co-Executive Producer is the right-hand man or woman to the Executive Producer, the “Co-Producer” is the equivalent role to the Producer. They are oftentimes helping in the tasks necessary to be completed by the producer. This role is a steppingstone for staff writers to earn more and have more responsibility as they develop their careers.
A “Story Editor” is a writer who has been on the show for some time, or a writer who is experienced and able to lead. The story editor helps lead the staff writers as well, take a salary in addition to a “per episode” pay, and possesses more authority in the writers room than the subordinate staff writer.
The “Staff Writer” may have the least authority or say-so in the writers room, but he or she collaborates with other staff writers to develop ideas that will eventually blossom into a fully-fledged episode. They are rarely the actual writer of the episode and are oftentimes uncredited. However, they are the golden keys of a TV series. They workshop ideas with other writers and develop plot points for each episode.
This is somewhat of an “entry level” role as a TV writer. Everyone has to start somewhere, right?
To find a seat at the writing table, one can become a “Writer Assistant”, someone who essentially maintains the writers room. While the writers are talking, he or she will sit in the room and jot down all the relevant notes of the session. They are oftentimes the first ones in the room and the last ones to leave. Writer assistants also read scripts and check them for errors. They keep track of the latest versions of scripts when changes are made and ensure that everyone on the team is on the same page. They are “organizers-in-chief”.
While being a Staff Writer is the beginning of a career, coming in as a Writers Assistant can also be a great way to break into the writers room. Do your job well and you can move up.
In the TV and film industry, a PA is a “Production Assistant”. In TV, the “Writer PA” has the job of getting coffee, feeding the writers in the room, and helping with other tasks. However, Writer PAs are only really employed in high-budget productions. A lot of the times, there isn’t one.
“Television in the last few years has been where all the great writers are going. TV now is what indie film used to be.” -Jeff Daniels
Now that you’ve learned about the many people working in the writers room, you can acknowledge that TV is a very collaborative industry. The showrunner runs the show, but all the other writers under him or her play a very important role in bringing the story idea to the screen.
If you want to get into the TV and you have little to no experience, try getting a job as a Writer PA or Writers Assistant. From there you can become familiar with the inner workings of how TV writing takes place. Ideas are pitched and workshopped. The writers assistant keeps track of the notes, the staff writers develop the stories from the ideas, the story editors and producers work on an outline, and someone or sometimes two people, write the script. The script goes down the pipeline and back up to the showrunner for final approval.
You are one of a team in the writers room. That’s how your favorite shows come to life.
If you have any questions about the content of this blog, feel free to email me and I’ll get back to you ASAP.
What is a Writers Room- Writers Room Jobs Explained — Kyle Deguzman breaks down each job that can be found within the elusive Hollywood writers room.
TV Script Format 101 - Examples of How to Format a TV Script — Chris Heckmann discusses the basics of writing a TV script whether it’s for a 30-minute sitcom or an hour-long drama.
What is a Writers’ Room and How Do They Work? — Jason Hellerman gives another perspective of what you find inside a writers room, how to get there and what to expect once you’re there.
Television Writing: 5 Tips for Success in a Writers’ Room — The MasterClass Staff offers another perspective of what happens inside the Writers’ Room and offers tips for success once there.
Simple Guide to the Writers’ Room Hierarchy – Ken Miyamoto offers an in-depth description of each position in a Writers’ Room and who ranks where.