TV WRITING: Your First Years In The Writers Room

Photo Courtesy of the Writers Guild Foundation

by Kelly Jo Brick

From finding representation to landing the first staff writing gig and navigating the writers’ room, everyone’s path to breaking in is different. The Writers Guild Foundation brought together Polina Diaz (FULLER HOUSE), Kay Oyegun (THIS IS US, QUEEN SUGAR), Robert Padnick (THE OFFICE, MAN SEEKING WOMAN) and Britta Lundin (RIVERDALE) to talk about the highlights and challenges of their first years writing for television.

WRITING THE SCRIPT TO LAND YOUR FIRST JOB

Write the script you’re really scared to write, because it’s probably the one most personal to you and will resonate the most with other people. It doesn’t matter if nobody’s going to buy it or it’s too expensive. Just write what you want to for your sample.

BUILDING YOUR NETWORK

It’s totally fine if you move to Los Angeles without knowing anybody, you’re just going to meet those people naturally. Work backwards from what you have and build on that. Do you have friends who are in the entertainment business? Do you have friends who have friends in the industry? Just be really thoughtful.

Meet people who you maybe want to be friends with. It’s so not schmoozing people at a mixer and handing them your business card. It’s like going to a birthday party and talking to someone and learning about them and caring about them. Later maybe they’ll be like, oh, I like your project, maybe I want to read your script. That’s the kind of networking that’s going to be most helpful.

Go out to drinks once or twice a week just to chat with people and see what’s up with their lives and exchange scripts. You meet a lot of people through writing groups and reading their work. Doing that long enough, you build up a group of friends and people who care about you as a person and want to see you succeed.

If you’re a comedy writer, there are definitely comedy communities that you can be part of like Upright Citizens Brigade or Groundlings. While you’re doing that, do things to get noticed, Twitter feeds, web series. People notice funny people all the time. There are ways to stand out if you’re just really creative or working really hard at it.

MAKING THAT FIRST IMPRESSION WITH REPS – IS YOUR MATERIAL NOT GOOD OR ARE YOU SENDING IT TO THE WRONG PERSON?

The question of how good I am versus how people are receiving me is going to haunt us for all of our careers. One thing you should have in your life is really honest critique partners who will tell you the truth. Hopefully you have a writing group or a friend who will be like, this needs more work or this isn’t your script, you have to write something else. If you have people who seem really smart and know what they’re talking about and they say it’s good, then maybe it’s good and you’re just sending it to the wrong person. It’s important to do your research and know what kind of stuff that manager or agent represents or what their other clients are doing. If they only do genre stuff and you’re sending out a romantic comedy, it might not be the right match.

It’s really important to know your brand. Before you think of yourself as a brand or as a business, which you really are, you have to know what you love and what excites you. Hone in on your craft and make sure what you’re writing is solid. Send the best thing you have. You have to fight for it. If they’re not into you, they’re not into you. Move on to the next person.

THE CHALLENGES OF WRITING FOR A TV SHOW BASED ON A BOOK

You change so many things and you move things around. You apologize to the author constantly, because so much of the book is changed. We try to be truthful to the core essence of the book and also be respectful to the fans who read and loved the book. You do your best and try to be truthful to it, but you don’t have to be married to it.

HOW TO ACT IN THE ROOM AS A NEW WRITER

Read the room. Am I talking too much? Does anyone look annoyed by how much I’m talking? Do they look annoyed by how little I’m talking? Definitely when you’re a staff writer, it depends on the showrunner and the staff for how much you should speak.

Some people don’t really care about the politics, they say if you have a good idea, just say it. For some shows there definitely is a hierarchy and you have to read that out. When you’re a staff writer, you’re never going to go in the room and be like, I know what the A story is or this is what your show is. For comedy, you’re there to pitch jokes when they’re stuck on something or pitch ideas, but don’t command the room.

Be overly prepared. That is very helpful. You are a facilitator of someone else’s vision. Know the world, at least to an extent of what they’re planning on doing. If the show deals with a specific subject, research it. Nobody else, especially the higher ups, wants to do that work. Do it on your own without anyone asking. When it comes up in the conversation, you’re able to bring the world there.

Different shows have different processes. Some like story pitches that have a beginning, middle and end of a pitch. That can be overwhelming for certain people. It’s a skill you have to continue to develop. Sometimes your pitch doesn’t work, but at least there’s something in the space and world you did that allows for another idea to be generated off of that.

Find a senior writer in the room, be friends with that person and just check in off the record to ask for feedback. Different rooms have different vibes and landmines to watch out for. Have someone that seems sympathetic. Just pull them aside during coffee or lunch and be like, hey, how am I doing. Usually there’s a sympathetic soul that totally gets it, but they’re not going to give advice out of the blue if you don’t ask.

The Writers Guild Foundation regularly hosts events that celebrate the craft and voices of film and television writers. To find out more about upcoming events, go to wgfoundation.org.


Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.