It might be hard to believe, but there are actually writers who’ve beaten the odds and managed to land gigs where they get paid to write for television! But how did they get hired, and what do their jobs look like?
First, it’s important to know that network TV writers typically only get hired during a single time period: staffing season. Staffing season starts around April/May, when showrunners read submitted scripts and interview prospective writers. Showrunners hire writers in June, after upfronts are done and primetime networks have ordered shows to-series.
Unless it’s a straight-to-series project, hiring can’t happen earlier than this. Nobody knows what shows are going to be airing!
This is slightly different for shows on cable networks, which develop and produce shows all year round. A cable show may have a smaller pool of available writers to choose from, but they don’t have to compete at the same frenzied pace as network shows.
Any time writers aren’t busy working on shows, they’re doing everything they can to get staffed. So what are some of the ways these writers get hired?
How to Get Hired #1: Your Agent Gets You Meetings, You Crush Those Meetings
Getting an agent is obligatory in Hollywood, as most networks and showrunners only read agency submissions. Having a representative submitting your script says, “Well, at least this person believes you have talent.”
Like everything else, the best way to get an agent is through a referral. With a referral, someone will at least read your script, which can’t be said about the hundreds of cold queries sent every week.
Many writers today have both an agent or manager, or both. We’ll go into more detail about agents and managers in a later section.
Great material shopped around by a great agent isn’t a guarantee you’ll get staffed… but it’s the closest you’ll get. The agent’s job is to sell you and get you in the room with someone with the authority to say, “you’re hired.” The writer’s job is to make sure the material your agent shops is stellar, and to crush any meetings you take.
Lauren Morelli got her first gig on Netflix’s hit show ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK thanks to her dedicated agent and a compelling, if weird, original pilot. According to Morelli, her agent shopped her around for a year before she landed an interview with showrunner Jenji Kohan, who asked her, “Were you interfered with as a child?”
Her answer (no) didn’t dissuade Kohan from hiring Morelli for her writers’ room.
How to Get Hired #2: Working as an Assistant Then Getting Promoted
Working as an assistant on a show and then getting hired to an open position is one of the most effective ways to become a staffed writer. It goes hand in hand with getting an agent. The two strategies work in tandem, making your chances of getting staffed higher.
It’s like applying to college. You never just rely on your SAT score; you need good essays, a good GPA, and good letters of recommendation.
Showrunners like to hire staff writers they know are right for the job, writers who understand the show, its characters, and jive well with the other writers. This makes assistants perfect staff writer candidates: they meet all these qualifications! Plus, the showrunner already has a working relationship with the assistants.
This is how COMMUNITY’s writer Tim Saccardo got staffed. In a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) last year he said,
I was hired as a writers assistant in season 2… It’s a rough job but an amazing opportunity to learn from the best and become intimately familiar with a show. You’re also part of the staff in a way and get to contribute to scripts when the situation calls for it.
After a while, I was given a script of my own to write and eventually was promoted to the writing staff. So, in a way, my writers assistant job ended up being like an extended interview/trial where the writers and producers got to see that I was good at writing the show and also wasn’t a dick that would be terrible to be in a room with all day (and sometimes all night…)
The same is true for Amy Berg, co-executive producer of EUREKA. In an interview with i09, she said she worked as an assistant to Kevin Kopelow and Heath Seifert (the writing team behind KENAN & KELL and ALL THAT) “…for a couple months before they saw fit to promote me to writer.”
You’re Staffed! Up Next: The Writers’ Room
Once June rolls around, there’s no time for staffed writers to celebrate getting hired. It’s time to get to work in the writers’ room.
No two writers’ rooms are alike. They’re put together by showrunners and reflect their creative and managerial approaches. This means drastic variations in who’s hired (some rooms have mostly mid to high level writers, some are filled with baby staff writers), what it physically looks like (sometimes it’s an actual room with a whiteboard, sometimes it’s not) and what the creative dynamic is like (how stories are created and how things get done).
Regardless of HOW the writers’ room is set up, there are a few things that HAVE to get done, otherwise the show never gets off the ground and everyone loses their jobs.
Figuring out the show’s characters and themes
Finding and “beating out” (i.e. breaking down) season arcs
Figuring out a season’s beats (the steps that get characters from point A to B to C etc., in the season arc) and choosing which episodes the important ones should happen in
Breaking each episode’s story and writing the scripts
Rewriting EVERY script and making it as close to perfect as possible before shooting starts
How the room tackles these tasks varies room to room.
On 24: LIVE ANOTHER DAY, showrunner Manny Coto described their writers’ room like this:
Basically, all the writers sit in a room and figure out verbally what the episode is going to be about in a general concept kind of way. The next step is for all the writers to start figuring out the various scenes that will go in each act. When we’ve figured that out, we move to an outline which usually runs from five to eight pages and fro[m] there one of the writers takes the outline and produces a script. That’s when the fun starts. We proceed to take that script apart, re-think it, throw most of it out and start all over again.
Graham Yost, showrunner of JUSTIFIED, said in a Reddit AMA that they break their episodes this way:
We break an episode in the writers’ room, probably in about a week or two. Then the writer takes it, turns around an outline, usually in a couple of days, gets notes, then has a week to write the first draft. Then Tim [Olyphant], Walton [Goggins], and the other actors weigh in and off we go.
Know Your Place
Staff writers, dubbed “baby writers,” are at the bottom of the writers’ room hierarchy. They’re paid less and have less responsibility than the veteran writers.
Showrunners know this, and only expect them to contribute the best they can and do their best when they’re assigned episodes to write. As Chad Gervich says in SMALL SCREEN, BIG PICTURE, “[it] isn’t about proving you can hang with showrunners and EPs. It’s about following the flow and learning the ropes in a bizarre, brutal, often intimidating environment.”
How can staff writers stand out then?
“I came every day from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.,” Drew Goddard said in an interview for SMALL SCREEN, BIG PICTURE when asked about his time as staff writer for BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.
In Joss [Whedon]’s ten minutes of free time every couple hours, I’d say, ‘Here’s what I’m thinking for act one,’ or ‘Here’s an idea for this scene.’
“Some he’d like, some he’d say no, and sometimes he’d say ‘I can’t talk right now, I’m busy with all this other stuff.’
This approach got Goddard 3 episode script assignments. Later he got staffed on ANGEL, ALIAS, and LOST, and signed a seven-figure overall deal with Touchstone Television in 2006.
Of course, it’s a delicate balance. Baby writers should never be overly critical of other pitches without offering constructive solutions. For example, saying, “That arc sucks and will never work” isn’t going to win you any brownie points with your showrunner, whereas “I think the arc would be better if we added X, Y and Z” might.
Another way you can lose your job is by pitching any idea that pops to mind without a quality control filter; saying nothing at all, on the other hand, can get you fired, too.
Again, it’s a delicate balance.
You Survived Season One: Now It’s Time to Hustle
After surviving the show’s season, spending 10-14 hours a day for months writing and rewriting scripts, the show finally goes on hiatus and you’re on “vacation.”
Except not really, because staff writers never quite get a vacation. Like professional athletes, “off-season” is “pre-season.”
During the off-season, TV writers continue to move their careers forward by writing spec scripts, prepping for their show’s next season (if it’s renewed), and networking.
Why? Because there is no job security in television, unless you’re an established name like Damon Lindelof or Shonda Rhimes. Even then, you’re only as secure as your ability to churn out successful shows.
The TV writer gig doesn’t last 52 weeks. It lasts for as long as you’re in that writers’ room. When 90% of shows fail in the first few seasons and 99.99% eventually get canceled (soaps like DAYS OF OUR LIVES and GENERAL HOSPITAL seem to be exceptions to this rule. Plus, for some reason, THE SIMPSONS) TV writers spend their free time competing for their next gig.
There’s no better time to hustle than the off-season. Especially since your show could easily wind up cancelled before the hiatus ends.