Becoming a television screenwriter is a challenging career to break into, given the intense competition and the evolving television landscape. However, there is no single straightforward path toward achieving success in writing for TV. As an emerging or professional writer, there are certain actions you can take to position yourself for success in this field. This article will explore some crucial strategies and approaches to gain entry into the television screenwriting industry.
Table of Contents
Write Something Undeniable
The most important thing you can do as a screenwriter is write. If you’re trying to break into television writing, you need strong TV pilots in your writing portfolio. Looking for reps? They will want to read your work. Got an interview with a showrunner? They will want to read your work. Applying for a fellowship? You guessed it — they will want to read your work. And if you didn’t get in last year, they will want new work this year.
You simply must be reading excellent screenplays and then writing your own, workshopping them, getting coverage from a trusted friend or resource, and making them as strong as possible for the day opportunity knocks. There’s no way around this. Writers write.
Read More: 5 Ways to Make Your First Draft Better
Connect With Other Writers
Writing is typically a solitary activity, but succeeding in the writing industry demands a strong network. Your network plays a vital role in reading your scripts, offering feedback, connecting you with industry experts, endorsing you for job opportunities, and ultimately hiring you in their writing teams.
There isn’t really a job tracking board for screenwriting positions. When showrunners are staffing their room, they start with their own network. If they promote their Script Coordinator to Staff Writer, they’ll often ask that person if they recommend a replacement. Maybe your friend is already a Writers Assistant on a show, and they know the Showrunners Assistant is about to leave for a Staff position on another project — they are primed to recommend you.
Your network will read your scripts and provide feedback, share opportunities, keep you motivated, and help connect you with jobs. And you’ll do the same for them — so be someone helpful and generous with sharing knowledge and expertise. High tides lift all ships.
Read More: How To Build Your Screenwriting Network
Competitions, Labs, Fellowships
When you are starting out in your career, you can help get your work read by participating in well-respected competitive-based programs. Placing in highly-esteemed competitions or fellowships gives your writing a stamp of approval as you query reps or when your friend recommends you for an interview. Participating in those labs and fellowships can launch your career through their development and networking opportunities.
Entering these kinds of programs takes time, energy, and oftentimes money, so it’s important to be discerning about which platforms are right for you, but if you want to be a TV writer, then the network fellowships are a great place to start.
NBC, HBO, CBS, Disney/ABC, Nickelodeon, Warner Bros, and Fox have television writers’ programs that vary in length, submission requirements, and design. Disney and NBC currently require two television pilots for entry, while Warner Bros and Nickelodeon have continued to require spec scripts for existing shows.
Read More: An Insider Look at the 2022 TV Writing Lab
Annually, the submission criteria for fellowships and programs are updated, which can encompass various materials, such as your writing resume, personal statements, essay questions, and letters of recommendation. To maximize your chances of success, keep a record of submission deadlines and requirements, start crafting your new writing samples well in advance, and seek advice on the best application strategies by tuning into relevant podcasts.
Labs are similar to the fellowships but in a much more condensed format — and they usually require an entry fee.
WeScreenplay’s TV Pilot Lab, for example, delivers a one-of-a-kind virtual writing lab hosted by top managers, agents, writers, and more. The winners will engage in a four-day interactive virtual lab featuring immersive workshops, industry meet-and-greets, and opportunities to learn from experienced television writers.
All of the nuances of TV writing are covered in the TV Lab, as well as the critical career necessity of building a network. WeScreenplay connects TV Lab participants with producers, literary reps, and other working writers to help answer questions and prepare you for a successful career in television.
While signing with an agent or manager isn’t a guarantee that your career will move forward, it is a great way to partner with someone who can open some doors for you.
Literary managers or agents can help guide you and support you in shaping your screenwriting career. A writer’s relationship with their manager tends to be more personal. Managers assist you in developing your scripts and samples, make sure you’re working on the right material, assess what the next best step is for you, and can help you find an agent.
Agents, meanwhile, are like sales brokers. Their focus is on getting you a gig or selling your script. They represent you by connecting you with those looking for staff or producers that might be interested in your script. Agents pitch you and your work, help get you meetings, and negotiate deals for you. In short, agents market and sell your work as a screenwriter. They pound the pavement to seek jobs for you, and the state licenses them to secure that employment.
Your reps can also help sell your pilots, and while that won’t necessarily guarantee that you’ll get to work on your show, you’re definitely the first person they’ll consider when hiring.
Read More: What Are Agents and Managers Looking For In Your Writing Portfolio?
Start as an Assistant
It’s very common to begin your professional screenwriting career in assistant positions, which will teach you nuances of television making and help strengthen your relationships with showrunners, producers, and writers.
While you won’t be writing for the show as a Showrunner’s Assistant, you will be working closely with the person who can hire you next season. A good showrunner also knows you’re an emerging writer and will offer to read your samples and recommend you for career opportunities.
A Script Coordinator will read every draft of every script, monitor continuity, and provide drafts for everyone involved in the show, from studio execs to producers to crew to talent. This position proves to people that you are reliable, detail-oriented, enjoyable to work with, cool under pressure, and story-minded. It’s a lot of work that deserves a lot more pay, but if you want to be a showrunner yourself one day, holy moly, it teaches you about how television production works.
Writers Assistants literally get to be in the writing room. They are there to assist the writers. Writers Assistants take detailed notes about story ideation, jokes, characters, episode beats, and more. While their job is not yet to write for the show, again, good showrunners know that the WA is there because they want to be a writer, so they’ll ask for input from time to time. A WA can also take some initiative by offering to write content that is part of a television show but not part of the script. Is there a newspaper article onscreen in this episode? Someone has to write that article — you can volunteer to create the first draft so the writers’ room can focus on the script and episode production.
Assistant positions are still highly coveted — you can get these jobs by letting your network know you’re ready and available for them and asking them to keep you in mind when shows are hiring.
Series centered around career specialties — like Grey’s Anatomy or SEAL Team — require consultation from real-life subject matter experts. A military show should have a military advisor to keep the writing, characters, plotlines, and details authentic.
That technical advisor is hired to advise, but if your first career can lend itself to a writers’ room, you can start to help shape stories and maybe even contribute enough expertise to get a story by credit. This is also an opportunity to meet showrunners, make yourself invaluable, and let them know you want to be a writer.
If a staff writer is also a subject matter expert, then the need for a technical advisor is less urgent and can save producers some money in the production budget.
Create Your Own Content
So many creatives are multi-hyphenates these days because a popular video is easier to share than an excellent script. If you create a proof-of-concept for your script, you can easily share it with people and pique their interest.
Think Issa Rae’s web series Awkward Black Girl, which evolved into the HBO hit Insecure. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer created a web series for Broad City and caught Amy Poehler’s attention, launching it into a successful show. Morgan Cooper created a conceptual trailer for Bel-Air, a reimagined drama reboot of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The trailer was so popular that Will Smith eventually saw it and greenlit the series.
Other people have fully produced their own pilots, like Sonja O’Hara, who received a Daytime Emmy nomination for her series Doomsday, which she co-created, directed, and starred in, or the upcoming Canusa Street from Zack Morrison, who produced his 2021 Catalyst Story Institute winner for Outstanding Comedy Script.
It takes grit and financing and ingenuity, and a lot of time and energy to create content. Still, it can be a satisfying way to bring your words to life — and hopefully bring an audience (and buyers/employers) directly to you.
The most important piece of advice about breaking in as a TV writer comes from Niceole Levy’s book The Writers’ Room Survival Guide: “Just don’t give up.”
Persistence is what will help you rise, hone your craft, and build your network. It will keep you going through the years (yes, prepare for your emerging writing experience to take years and then celebrate if you’re lucky enough to land a job sooner than that). It’s what will help you become a contributor to society as a storyteller.
Good luck, see you out there, and happy writing!
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Shannon Corbeil is a writer, actor, and U.S. Air Force veteran in Los Angeles with recent appearances on SEAL Team and The Rookie. She was also a 2023 DGE TV Writing Program Finalist, and her screenplays have placed in various contests. You can read more about her on her website or come play on Instagram and Twitter!