Writers need to be very clear about their goals for the project before writing a new screenplay, whether they hope to sell it, submit it to a fellowship or contest, or use it as a writing sample to get representation.
An original screenplay can accomplish any of those goals while a spec script of an existing TV show is more limited (for example, I sadly don’t own the rights to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, therefore I legally can’t sell or produce a Buffy script).
What’s a Spec Script?
Before we begin, let’s clarify the term “spec script.” Writing a screenplay on spec — or speculation — is writing any script that you have not been hired to write. If I write an original pilot with the hopes of selling it to CBS, I wrote that script on spec as opposed to pitching a pilot idea to CBS which they then hire me to write. “Spec script” is also often used when writing a script of an existing TV show you were in that show’s writers room — like my Buffy script — without the intention of selling it.
Why Write a Spec Script?
It’s very unlikely that you’ll write a spec script of your favorite show and then sell it to that show for production — in fact, most people associated with a show will not read spec scripts of that show for two reasons: first, they know their show in and out and will only notice your mistakes; second, they don’t want any copyright issues if you happened to have written a plot device that they’re working on.
So, why would writers spend their time on a script they can’t sell?
Well, gentle reader, I’ll tell you.
Certain Programs Require a TV Spec Script
The main thing a TV spec script can do is show whether a writer can capture the voice of an existing show. If you want to be hired in a writers room, this is a critical skill. In 2021, the Warner Bros. Writers’ Workshop, the ViacomCBS Writers Mentoring Program, and the Nickelodeon Writing Program all required a spec script from an existing show.
Hone Your Craft
A spec script is an excellent way to practice the art of screenwriting and it gives you so many opportunities to study and learn. If you read scripts of your favorite show, study their structure, and watch the corresponding episodes, you can learn so much about writing.
When studying a script like that, you can track things like page numbers, act breaks, story escalation, and jokes per page, not to mention structure and formatting. From there, you have the skeletal structure of a script and then you can replicate it with characters who already exist.
The work of world-building and character creation has been done for you and you can concentrate on a story and replicate the distinct voice of each character. For emerging writers, spec scripts are incredible stepping stones toward writing original pilots. For experienced writers, a spec script is a clean opportunity to show your skills.
Build a Strong Portfolio
Showrunners often want to read spec scripts to see if you’re able to capture the voice of a show — which is exactly what they would be hiring you to do for their show.
Agents and managers for TV writers may want them for the same reason. Professionals need to know that you can let your voice and imagination shine through within the constraints of an existing world.
A TV spec script is a clean way to show — and build — your skills as a writer. Having a few in your writing portfolio will arm you with more opportunities to show the industry what you can do. If you want to be a TV writer, most professionals recommend that you have a few great TV specs and a few great TV pilots to round out your writing samples.
And don’t forget to have people familiar with your tv series give you notes or coverage to ensure you’re meeting your goals and nailing the assignment.
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Shannon Corbeil is a writer, actor, and filmmaker in Los Angeles with recent appearances on SEAL Team and The Rookie. An Air Force veteran, her articles have been published in Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, and Military.com. She has written and produced hundreds of digital videos with millions of views. You can read more about her on her website or come play on Instagram and Twitter!