TV Writers: How To Navigate Staffing Season

Photo Courtesy of the Writers Guild Foundation

By Kelly Jo Brick

Television staffing has become a year round opportunity for writers, but how does a new writer maneuver his or her way through the process of getting hired on a show?

The Writers Guild Foundation brought together a group of TV writers including:

Elias Benavidez  (BEYOND)

Niceole Levy  (SHADES OF BLUE, THE MYSTERIES OF LAURA)

Joe Lawson  (THIS IS US, JANE THE VIRGIN)

Shernold Edwards (HAND OF GOD, SLEEPY HOLLOW)

Moises Zamora (AMERICAN CRIME)

And moderator Brandon Easton (MARVEL’S AGENT CARTER) to share their own struggles with breaking in, writing the scripts that got them hired, what to expect when meeting with executives and showrunners and how the staffing landscape has been changing.

GETTING STAFFED IF YOU DON’T HAVE REPRESENTATION.

  • Apply for the television fellowships. Those programs can get you meetings and help put you up for a show before you ever have representation.
  • Talk to everyone you possibly can in the industry, but don’t be annoying. If an executive or other writer offers to stay in touch, believe it.
  • Representation sometimes does find you. Take workshops like UCLA classes. Referrals are often what lead to getting someone to rep you. Agents generally come in after you have a job.
  • Always keep writing. That’s what’s going to get you in the room.

SHOULD YOU WRITE SPECS OF CURRENT SHOWS?

  • Writing a spec will help you build a muscle that you will need. Good writing is good writing and that will help you no matter what.
  • Some execs won’t submit a writer who doesn’t have a spec in their portfolio. Have at least one that you love, to show you can write in the voice of someone else, because that’s the job.
  • Original voice is very important. Have an original pilot and a spec. It has you prepared for whichever an executive or showrunner will want.
  • Reading and writing specs are a good way to train you mind to look beyond the pilot.

HOW MUCH DOES IT MATTER TO WRITE ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW?

  • Write what you are passionate about. If it’s interesting to you, it’s interesting to them.
  • Think about how you want to market yourself.
  • Have something you want to say, channel your experiences and feelings into your characters and story.
  • Agents and managers have a passion barometer. They can tell if you care about what you’re working on. When you put your whole being into a script, people can tell.

STAFFING IS ALL YEAR LONG. HOW HAS THAT CHANGED THE HIRING ENVIRONMENT FOR NEWER WRITERS?

  • There aren’t a lot of network, 20 plus episode a season jobs anymore.
  • Shows are top heavy, but there are a few lower level positions.
  • Executives change jobs all the time. They also share with other people when they meet a writer they like, so if that one job doesn’t hit, still keep that relationship going. You never know where it can lead.
  • Part of getting a lower level staff job is building a fan club of people who want to help you succeed. There’s nothing that will endear you more to someone than genuine enthusiasm.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN MEETINGS WITH EXECUTIVES AND SHOWRUNNERS.

  • Know your personal story and be ready to share it. Also be able to tell them what shows you’re watching.
  • Do your research on who you’re meeting with, but don’t get too personal.
  • Be able to talk about what you like from their pilots, what you’re excited to write about and don’t be afraid to be wrong. Just be passionate about what you love about the show.
  • Try to find a personal connection to a character in the showrunner’s script. That can build conversation.
  • Know what they read of yours so you’re prepared to answer any questions they have about it.
  • Sometimes people will ask what you don’t like about a show. Prep a positive way to talk about it.
  • Some executives bait you into crapping on other shows. Don’t do it.

TIPS ON SURVIVING UNTIL YOU GET THAT FIRST JOB.

  • If you’re worried about money, you can’t write. It’s too scary. Do whatever you need to in order to keep yourself alive and comfortable. If you have to, sacrifice sleep or other things, but keep writing.
  • Build a routine around your day job to make sure you’re still leaving time for writing and networking.
  • Don’t get tunnel vision. If you don’t live life, you won’t have anything to write about. Do other things.
  • Be prepared for a lot of uncertainty. Am I going to get the agent? Am I going to get the manager? Am I going to get this job? Am I going to keep this job? What if the show gets cancelled? It never ends. You have to find a way to manage it.
  • You have to ask for stuff, because nobody will offer to introduce you to his or her agent. You have that one shot you can ask. They’ll either say yes or no. You can’t be afraid to ask.

WHAT ARE THE EXPECTATIONS FOR A FIRST TIMER IN THE ROOM?

  • If you can say one thing of value before lunch and one in the afternoon, that’s good. Don’t force stuff out of your mouth because you want to be heard.
  • Read the room. See, hear, listen. See what the room needs. If everyone talks, you don’t need to. Build that skill of understanding for what the room does and doesn’t need.
  • Watch who is successful at pitching in the room and model their behavior.
  • It’s not your job to challenge the boss. Do whatever you can do to add to your showrunner’s idea.
  • Remember, just because you’re not talking, doesn’t mean you’re not working.

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.