How to become a writer for TV is different than how to become a screenwriter of feature films.
The secret to learning how to become a writer for TV is this:
Start at the bottom.
How To Become A Writer For TV
If you want to become a writer for TV, you have to work as a TV staff writer first.
The TV staff writer, aka the “baby writer,” is the lowest rung on the ladder.
From there you work your way up to story editor, co-producer, producer, supervising producer, co-executive producer, all the way up to executive producer.
This typically takes a long time… and for good reason.
TV Writers Are Also TV Producers
Taking several years to climb the hierarchy in TV is necessary because you have to learn more than how to write for TV. You have to learn production as well.
There’s a reason TV writers have the title of “producer.” You not only have to write, you have to write the TV show in a way that meets the immutable demands of production, and you are part of the team responsible for that production including: casting, sets, locations, props, and more.
What’s Your TV Writing Goal?
If you want to learn how to become a writer for TV because your goal is to write original material and be in charge of the show (aka, the executive producer or “showrunner”), you still need to start at the bottom.
Film screenplays can be sold by new writers. TV pilots can only be sold by established writers.
That may be disappointing to hear, but the reason it’s true is because of the production issue. Even if you write a great pilot, that doesn’t mean you have the skills to run what is essentially a multi-million dollar business with hundreds of employees and weekly deadlines.
How To Become A Writer For TV – Key Terms
- Pilot: A stand-alone episode of an original TV series used to sell the series to the network.
- Spec: Spec is short for speculation, and refers to when you create something for which you are not paid upfront. Specs are written with the intention of making a sale or being used as a writing sample to get paid assignments. Specs can be pilots but are more typically episodes of shows currently on the air.
Important to note: pilots and specs don’t sell – they are only considered as writing samples.
How To Become A Writer For TV – Your Options For Creating Material
The next step to learning how to become a writer for TV is to create material.
The traditional path is to create at least two pieces of material in the same genre:
- Two specs of current hit TV shows
- One spec and one pilot
- *One spec and one original feature
*Writing a screenplay for a feature film AND a spec for a TV show is my preferred method.
There are two advantages to doing it this way.
First, you prove you know how to write a screenplay.
Second, unlike your original TV pilot, you can sell your original feature film script.
If you are looking for some guidance and insight from a top showrunner, I recommend Shonda Rhimes’s online course. Here’s my detailed review of Shonda Rhimes MasterClass in TV Writing.
How To Become A Writer For TV – Choose Shows To Spec
Ideally, a TV spec should be for an established, hit show that is currently on the air.
Your job is to write an episode as if you were one of the writers on staff for that show.
This shows that you can turn something around quickly, that you understand 4-act structure, and that you get what is a “typical” episode for the show.
Avoid shows that have been cancelled or which are on cable. Even if you have a great idea, it’s less likely that showrunners will have seen these shows and it doesn’t prove you can turn something around quickly. You could have been writing that spec for Cheers for 20 years.
But most importantly, you should write the show you love:
“[When] you’re trying to pick the right series to spec, please don’t listen to your friends. Don’t listen to the people in your writing class. Don’t be swayed by something you read on the web. Write the show that you know and love!” –Sheldon Bull, TV writer (M*A*S*H, Newheart, Coach)
How To Become A Writer For TV – Alternate Routes To Becoming A TV Writer
Now, let’s talk about some of the less traditional routes to get hired in TV – the ones that don’t require you to write scripts.
The basic idea is that you need to demonstrate outstanding work in another medium that shows your potential to add value to a team of other writers.
For example, if you are incredibly funny and have a body of work to prove it from doing stand-up or writing humorous books, you can get a job working on a sit-com or variety show.
Case #1: Social Media Star
For example, meet Jack Moore. He started the twitter account @Seinfeldtoday which is basically the idea that he and a friend came up with which “was what if Seinfeld was still on the air?”
Very quickly, this twitter account got a lot of notice within six months and now has more than 680K followers. Because of this, a manager reached out to Moore and helped him get an agent. Moore went through one staffing season and got hired as a staff writer on Fox’s Us & Them.
Case #2: Standup Comedy
Another proven path for being a TV staff writer on a comedy is coming from the world of standup.
Sarah Colonna is a standup who has performed a number of comedy specials and was a semifinalist on NBC’s last comic standing. She started as a roundtable guest on Chelsea lately and in 2009 was hired full-time as a writer for the show.
Louis CK is obviously a giant standup these days, but he started as a staff writer on the Chris Rock Show, Late Night with David Letterman, and The Dana Carvey Show.
Larry Wilmore started out as a writer on Into the Night, In Living Color, Sister Sister, Jamie Foxx Show, and others until he did the Bernie Mac Show, became a Daily Show correspondent, and recently sold a show with Issa Rae to HBO, and as of this writing, has his own show on Comedy Central, The Nightly Show.
How To Become A Writer For TV – The Next Step To Writing A TV Show
If you haven’t already, take a look at these TV writing books.
Read at least three and see what they have in common and where they disagree.
While you’re doing that, think about the current hit shows you love and let ideas bubble up from your unconscious. You might hit on a great idea for a spec, a spec pilot, or a spec feature.
TV Writing Takes Time
Most importantly – take your time.
Yes, as soon as you learn how to become a writer for TV, you may want to move quickly.
But there are big decisions to be made:
- What genre will you focus on?
- Will you write a spec and a feature, pilot, or another spec?
- What shows will you spec?
- What stories do you really want to tell?
Once you’ve answered these questions, then you can put your foot on the gas.