Showrunner’s Assistant or Writer’s Assistant? Advice from a Producer on Mad Men

career, writer's room

I was happy with my friends’ advice about what was a better career move: Showrunner’s Assistant (SA) or Writer’s Assistant (WA)?

Both seemed to think SA was the better move:

  • You get to meet more people.
  • You see the macro world of television.
  • There’s more job security.

Made sense to me.

Then I sat down with an Emmy-award winning writer/producer on MAD MEN…

And wow. Easily some of the best advice I ever heard.

She shared a few tips, but most importantly, shared 3 nuggets of advice I never really considered…

Despite having spoken to other writers and working in the industry and reading hundreds of blog posts on building your career in Los Angeles.

If you’re looking to get into a writer’s room, and ever wondered which would be a better position, Showrunner’s Assistant or Writer’s Assistant, keep reading.

Her advice could save you somewhere in the ball park of 2 to 3 years of your life.

Showrunner’s Assistant or Writer’s Assistant?

(Be sure to check out how my friends (a SA and a WA) answered this question as well.)

Nugget 1

“I’ve done both [writer’s assistant and showrunner’s assistant] and if you have a choice, AND you want to be a writer” she said, “You should definitely be a…

Writer’s assistant.”

Here’s why:

“You get to be in the room when they break story. Yeah, you’re going to type a lot. And work really late. But, if they need someone to write a script, and you’ve proven yourself by carefully pitching a couple ideas… and you were there breaking story with them… who do you think is going to get that script?

That’s your goal. That’s why you’re in that room. To get a shot at writing a script.”

Nugget 2

“Okay, let’s play Devil’s Advocate for a second,” I said. “Other people told me, ‘If you’re the showrunner’s assistant, you get to meet a lot more people, you get to see how everything works, and you’re going to build a lot more connections. In the writer’s room, you only get to meet the writers.”

She nodded

“You meet a lot fewer people, yes. But you meet the right people. If you want to write for TV, meet the writers who are going to run shows someday. That’s what matters.

When it’s time to pick writers for a room, the only people who matter are: the showrunner, the network head or the studio head. And most of the time, if a showrunner wants someone in the room, they’ll get him or her.”

Nugget 3

I explained to her how I first started working for Dennis. On top of regular assistant duties, I was working to build his brand and improving his marketing.

She smiled.

“That’s awesome that you do all that. But it’s not going to teach you how to write, and it’s never going to show him how creative you are. If you want to write, you need to be in that room breaking story and pitching ideas when you can.”

This was a major aha! moment for me.

There was a reason why I was more attracted to the SA position.

Because that’s what I already know how to do.

I know I can crush that job. I have a competitive advantage over anyone in that role.

What I don’t know is: Can I be creative in the room?

I shy away from the WA position because:

I am afraid I won’t be any good. I’m afraid I won’t bring creativity to the table.

She nodded.

“Sure, but just realize: that’s not your job. Your job as a writer’s assistant is to get all the words down, and to help them break the story. Their job is to break the story, and then teach you how to do it.”

Every staff writer who walks into that room feels the same way. They’re going to walk in and wonder:

‘God, can I do this? Can I work at the same creative level as the showrunner?'”

The Only 3 Things That Matter

I took at least 10 actionable tips and strategies away from this one conversation.

But those 3 nuggets specifically could save you years of heartache.

(Think about that for a second: What are years of your life worth to you? Saved by sitting down with the right person and asking the right questions? Can you put a dollar sign on that? I don’t think so.)

Those nuggets were:

  1. Your goal as a writer’s assistant: get a script
  2. In the writer’s room, you meet less people, but you meet the right people
  3. Don’t let the fear, “I’m not as good as they are” stop you

What do you think? If given the chance, would you take an SA position or WA position?

(To learn about the ins-and-outs of being an SA, WA, and more, read Inside the Writers’ Room.

And for dozens of micro-case studies on how people broke into the writer’s room, check out: How Do You Write for TV?)

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