As with most careers, there are a lot of ways to become a television writer. I started as a standup comic and had a track record writing things that made people laugh. When friends started getting television shows, I just had to prove that I could write scripts, so I wrote specs and pilots to show that I could do it. Other "alternative" ways into the industry depend on your samples, previous experience, networking ability, representation, and talent.
Traditional career path
Other career paths
Creative and writing skills
How hard is it to get a job as a TV writer?
How hard is being a TV writer?
How much do TV writers make?
Start at the Bottom, Work Your Way Up
The traditional path is to start in an internship or as a production assistant (entry-level positions) and climb the ladder, sometimes making lateral moves along the way, until you join a writing staff.
Start with an internship in the entertainment industry while you're in college - preferably as a cinema/media major. Spend time making connections with as many people as possible during that internship, and do your job really well. If there's an opportunity to get a job working there after college, take it. If not, add this internship to your resume and look for another internship.
Become a production assistant. This role is an entry-level position, the lowest-paid job on a television production, though it often results from having had an internship. Do whatever is asked of you, and do it really well. Look for opportunities while you're being an exceptional PA. If you want to be a TV writer, get to know the writing staff and try to become the ...
Writers' PA, or writers' production assistant, specifically supporting the staff writers. Again, do the job really well. If the writers are impressed by your work ethic, you might get promoted to a ...
Writers' assistant or script coordinator. As a writers’ assistant, you will finally have made it into the writers’ room. Your primary job in the room will be to type writers’ “pitches” into the script under the direction of the showrunner. You will also help with proofreading the scripts and with the distribution of drafts to various departments. Being an excellent listener, understanding the rules of grammar, and typing quickly and accurately are all skills that are helpful for successful writers’ assistants. A script coordinator is an upper-level writers’ assistant. The role is largely the same as a writers' assistant but with a little more responsibility and pay. Not every TV show has a script coordinator.
Often, a script coordinator or writers' assistant will get to write and get paid for a script for a TV episode during the season. In these instances, the show’s writers will often work together with the writers’ assistant or script coordinator to break a story and outline for her individual episode, then send the writers' assistant or script coordinator off to script. If the writers’ assistant/script coordinator’s script is really good and there's an opportunity available, she might get promoted to staff writer — if the showrunner is amenable to promoting from within. Some are, and some are not. It is worth doing a little research to find out if the showrunner is likely to promote you before taking a job on a given show, if you have other options. Generally, you will need to be in these roles for a few or even several shows before getting to join a writing staff. Spending time in these roles allows you to learn how to develop an episode in a collaborative environment, how to write effective drafts on a deadline, and how to identify and adapt to the particular culture of each room, all of which are difficult to pick up otherwise.
Once you finally get staffed, there's still more room to grow. The “staff writer” position is the first rung on the writing staff ladder. Staff writers are usually the most inexperienced writers on the staff. With experience, a writer will progress through the next rungs as a story editor and then executive story editor.
Mid-level writers with a few more years under their belts and slightly more editorial and content responsibility consist of co-producers and producers.
Upper-level writers include supervising producers, consulting producers, co-executive producers, and executive producers. This last group are the most experienced in the room, having worked for several years breaking stories, developing season arcs, and addressing network and studio notes. They also should have a deep understanding of performance, editing, and camera work. The showrunner, the writer who is ultimately responsible for the show’s content, is ordinarily an executive producer.
Alternative Routes to Becoming a TV Writer
That's the common path to becoming a television writer. But there are many other ways it might happen. Here are a few examples:
You're the very well-liked personal assistant to the showrunner, and she decides to give you a try as a writers' assistant, or even let you try writing a script. You might even get promoted to the writing staff if you happen to be really good.
As a writers' assistant, you get to know a writer who is impressed by you and has read your spec script and writing samples. He gets his own TV show and hires you.
You're an actor who can write.
You're already a successful screenwriter (someone who writes feature films) and want to try TV writing.
You write an excellent TV pilot, send it to several talent managers, one of whom decides to rep you, and helps get it sold to a network. In all likelihood, you won’t be the showrunner on this show because you don’t have enough experience to entrust with that sort of investment, but you will probably be staffed!
You write and direct a short film or web series that makes a splash and you use that as a sample to get staffed on a show — usually, again, after a manager or agent has elected to represent you.
I was a stand-up comic and had a friend who got a job hosting a late night TV show on a major network. I offered to help him write material for the show, and when he was able he helped me get a job on the show.
The keys for getting into the writers’ room are:
- Doing an excellent job when you have an opportunity
- Creating material as samples of your work
- Building relationships with industry professionals
What Skills Do Great TV Writers Have?
Creativity: Virtually all human beings have some creative capacities, though these are not expressed identically in each of us. A TV writer needs to tap into her own particular brand of creativity and develop it. In order to accomplish this, you must have a growth mentality for your creative life. You do not have a fixed amount of creativity. The more you solve problems in novel ways, the more creative you become.
You do not have a fixed amount of creativity. The more you solve problems in novel ways, the more creative you become.
An ear for dialog: A sense for how people actually talk to each other so one can write dialogue that is believable is helpful. One should also learn how to write in the specific voices of each character.
An eye for character: The ability to develop and write for characters who are credible and interesting, being careful to adhere to each of their unique and specific voices is a big part of writing for television.
A strong sense of story: This means knowing what is a story, what isn't a story, understanding how to create a story and what the elements of story are. What are the necessary elements to say the thing you want to say? How does one structure the beginning, middle, and end of the story you want to tell?
I had to work on story as a young television writer. For whatever reason, writing scenes and interactions between people and making dialogue funny was always a lot easier for me than seeing the big picture of the story. I had to learn how to put the scenes together into a story and make it emotionally compelling.
Big ideas: It helps to have something to say, even if the thing you want to say is “Laugh!” The ability to make scenes and stories “about something” is useful if you want to write material that stays with the audience long after the credits roll.
Logic and problem-solving: Writing a script requires the ability to put together a lot of different pieces like a puzzle. You need to make sure all of the story elements are consistent and make sense.
A gift for writing words that can be acted and will create compelling images on a screen: Not every writer possesses the specific skills to translate a visual image to a page in a way that can be shot, or to convey emotion without saying, "He felt sad," like it would be written in print. This is, in fact, one of the rarest “natural” gifts of those who embark on a career writing for TV. A good film and TV writing program will help young writers learn how to do this.
Writerly bent: Some people have an inclination toward music or engineering or art. Television writers are inclined to write for the page, just like poets and journalists and novelists, but our words won’t be read by an audience. They will guide directors, directors of photography, editors, actors, and everyone else involved with a production to produce the show. In order to be successful at TV writing, you should have a writerly inclination, a desire and ability to write well for this medium.
Some people naturally have several of these traits. I have not, however, met anyone who naturally has all of them to begin with. Aspiring writers will benefit from guidance in identifying what they're naturally good at so they can lean into their gifts, and what they're not so good at, so those less-developed abilities can be improved through craft. The identification and developments of one’s gifts along with a commitment to teaching the craft is a big part of what we do in the Cinema and Media Arts program.
Interested in learning from professionals?
What Other Skills Do TV Writers Need?
The technical ability to write and do the job is essential. There are also soft skills that a TV writer needs in order to be successful. Here are some of the soft skills an aspiring TV writer may need to cultivate:
People skills: As a group, writers tend to be an introverted, solitary bunch. Henry David Thoreau didn't decamp to a pub in Times Square or join a writing group to write Walden; he went to a cabin in the woods. But television scripts are written in a collaborative setting with the direction of a showrunner and the feedback of everyone ranging from the actors to the network executives. If you're going to be successful as a television writer, you need to be able to get along with people. What does that look like?
Humility about your work: You need to be able to take notes (accept feedback) from people and not get upset or insulted if they disagree with you. Your first draft isn't perfect, and the third or fifth drafts probably aren't either. A skilled TV writer is humble enough to try someone else's idea and not dismiss it. TV writing is not a good niche for those who have a big ego about their work.
Communication: If you've practiced humility by trying someone's idea and you don't think it works, you need to be able to communicate why you don't think it worked. You'll also need to be able to tell your colleagues what you don't like about their ideas in a way that doesn't make them want to set your car on fire. Giving and taking feedback constantly, without offending or being offended, is a fundamental part of the job. This type of communication is a skill that most people need to learn for any job.
Valuing the gifts of others: You might be the smartest person in the room, but you’re probably not. It's more likely you're smart in your area and other people are smart in their areas. You have to recognize and appreciate the gifts of other people in order to collaborate and produce a better product than anyone could have written individually.
Collaboration: Much of the process of television writing takes place around a table in the writers’ room with other people. Everyone pitches ideas. Everyone's ideas are critiqued and adjusted. Everyone gets to write, and everyone else gives notes on the writing. TV scripts are written in a collaborative setting. Working in collaboration like this is a skill that many writers need to intentionally cultivate. It's not a deal breaker if it doesn't come naturally; it's a skill that can be practiced and honed over time. But it does need to be acquired.
Bottom line: if you want total creative control to write without the input of others, don't be a TV writer. Self-publish poems, novels or short stories. Pick some other type of creative writing. Writing for TV is a collaborative pursuit, so you need people skills.
Patience: As you're working to get established, you have to be aware that it's not all going to happen at once for you professionally. It takes time to develop relationships and hone your skills. It takes time to revise your TV pilot script over and over. You have to be OK knowing that when you finish writing your draft, it's a finished draft, not a finished script. There's a certain amount of perseverance that's required, both for the writing and the professional advancement. It's all a process. You will have ups and downs and it might take longer than you’d like to get where you want to be. Be patient.
Taste: You have to know the difference between something good and something bad. Not everyone is able to assess quality, and if you can't do that, it's very difficult to create scripts that are good. Without taste, even if you do write something good, you may not be able to tell.
Discipline: A skill creative types aren't exactly known for but must develop if they want to make a living at what they love. Being disciplined will look different for different people and probably wouldn't mean the same thing to a television writer as it would to an accountant. For a TV writer, discipline means setting aside time every day to write, even if it’s only for ten minutes, writing draft after draft until you get it right, and accepting constructive criticism without being defensive. It also means being a professional: showing up on time ready to work, returning calls and emails promptly, and keeping a record of industry meetings and contacts.
Knowledge of the entertainment industry: If you want a career in any industry, it is essential that you understand how it works, and this is no less true regarding TV writing. Among other things, you’ll need to know:
What sort of productions your particular writing talents are best suited for
What sort of material are television networks and studios currently looking for
Who you need to read your material and how to get them to read it
How the writers’ room works
How a TV set works
The process of making a movie or a TV show from ideation to recording
The role of an agents, managers, development executives, and producers.
One of the best ways to learn all of this is to go to a film school where you'll learn from faculty who are also current, connected industry professionals: writers, producers, directors, editors, DPs, and more. When looking at film schools, one thing you’ll want to find out is whether you’ll be taught by professionals who are still active in the industry. Biola’s Cinema and Media Arts faculty splits their time between working in film and television and teaching at Biola.
So, How Hard is it to Get a Job as a TV Writer?
It's not easy. I know people who have been script coordinators or writers' assistants for 15 years and still aren't on a staff. (I also know people who came right out of college, got a writers' assistant job for a summer, and became staff writers on a “Saturday Night Live,” so that can happen.) It's a competitive field in a competitive industry. But there's a lot of opportunity, if you:
Are gifted in a few of the key areas (writing dialogue, developing characters, telling stories) and willing to learn the rest
Already have professional expertise in a certain area, such as being a lawyer, and you've written specs about the law. Good legal, medical or crime shows have professionals as consulting producers whose role is to make sure the scripts sound authentic. If you're a good writer, you have a pretty good chance at getting read.
Dedicate yourself to practicing and developing your craft without allowing the setbacks that we all inevitably face to hold you back. In other words, you write a lot and you keep on writing. If one script doesn’t do the trick, write another, and so on and so on.
The truth is, very few people get television writing jobs without someone reaching down and saying, "Hey, come on up here." You want to get that hand up as you're starting out, and you want to be someone who puts a hand down when you're established.
How Hard is it to BE a TV Writer?
Watching content on screens is such a common activity that one can be lulled into thinking that it’s really simple to put it together. How hard can it be to make a show like Seinfeld, which was supposed to be about “nothing”? (It wasn’t about nothing, by the way. It was actually about everything.) Well, as it turns out, it is actually very hard.
Even for someone who has a preternatural knack for creating powerful images on the page, it takes years of training to create what appears to be everyday life for small screens. In fact, the more seamless the portrayal appears to be, the more difficult it was to make it that way. Good writers continually strive to make every story turn, every scene, and every line as real and true to the characters and their world as possible. Ironically, the better the writer, the less the audience notices that what they are watching has been written. That isn’t easy.
Also, assuming you can achieve a high degree of verisimilitude in your craft, writing for TV can be demanding in other ways. If the showrunner doesn’t have a clear creative vision, for example, days (and nights) can get long as you dedicate all your energies to making a show that ultimately won’t be very good. You can work a 27-hour workday, go home, sleep for a couple minutes, shower, and come back for more, only to support what turns out to be a mediocre product.
It's also not the most stable career choice. A good sitcom might have a run of 10 years, but the vast majority of shows don't run nearly that long. The pay is excellent when you are on staff, but unless you're writing for a show like Grey's Anatomy, which has been on the air since shortly after Noah’s ark settled on Mount Ararat, you might have some uncomfortable gaps in employment. What does this mean? You can’t see your career as the job you’re currently doing. You need to have an eye for what's next, always working on your next project, while also being smart with the money you're making so you don't find yourself scrambling to make ends meet.
All that being said, though, as a sitcom writer I will tell you that if you're on a comedy staff and you get along with everybody (and you should), you might face some hard and long and crazy hours, but man, do you laugh a lot. Even if it's not a particularly good show, you'll be around people who are exceptionally bright, creative, and funny. You'll constantly be challenged to be better, to find the most novel solution, and to make something that millions of people will watch. That’s a lot of fun.
How Much Do TV Writers Make?
How much a TV writer makes depends on a lot of factors. As with many roles in the TV industry, there's a lot of variation. There are also a few ways a TV writer can make money. You can earn a salary as a member of a writing staff on a television show, whether that's network TV, cable or a streaming service like Amazon or Netflix. You can also earn money by selling an original script, or if you're established enough, by selling the idea for a show without having a script. You don't have to do one or the other; it's common for a staffed writer to also be shopping around his latest script.
Compensation is negotiated, but the Writers Guild also publishes guidelines every few years that dictate the minimum a guild member can be paid in various situations. Like jobs in any other industry, compensation varies widely depending on factors like how many episodes are in the season, whether the show is a network show or a streamer, how experienced you are. There are also several different ways ideas and scripts can be sold.
So, to recap:
The most common way to get into television writing is to start at the bottom as a PA or in an internship and work your way up.
You can become a television writer without following the normal path if you have a background you can leverage or good connections with other people in the industry.
You need to work on your craft as a writer, while developing the specific skills required for TV writing: writing dialogue that can be acted, developing characters and their arcs, creating compelling stories, and translating solid visual images onto the page.
You need to get along with other people and foster personal traits that allow you to work effectively as a member of a team. TV writing doesn't happen in a vacuum; it's collaborative.
It's hard to land a job as a TV writer. Once you do, it's not easy work, but it's a lot of fun if you're good at it.
Television writers can make good money, both working on shows and selling their original scripts, but the work is contract-based and isn't necessarily guaranteed. It’s about a career, not individual jobs, so you need to always be working on what’s next.
Take the first step and check out the B.A. in Writing for Film and Television.
Job Descriptions of the TV Show Career Ladder
- Executive Producer/Showrunner:
Job description: Often serves as Head Writer. Responsible for the content of all scripts. Oversees the production, editing, sound mixing of the show. Often the creator of the show. There may be several Executive Producers/Writers on the show, but only one or two serve as the Showrunner(s).
Key skill(s): creative, organizational, leadership, problem-solving, sales, people skills
- Co-Executive Producer (may be second-to-top rung if there’s only one Executive Producer):
Job description: An upper-level member of the writing staff for a TV show. Can serve as the “number two” on the show, supporting the Showrunner’s vision. Can run the room or oversee production as the Showrunner’s proxy. Write scripts.
Key skill(s) for success: people skills, creativity, problem-solving, being a good writer
- Other Upper Level Writers (Supervising Producer, Consulting Producer, Producer, Co-Producer):
Job description: Upper level members of the writing staff with several years experience. Support the Showrunner’s vision for the show in the writers’ room. Help on set with notes, pitches, and overseeing mini-rooms when needed. Write scripts.
Key skill(s): creativity, problem-solving, being a good writer
- Mid-level Writers (Producer, Co-Producer, Executive Story Editor, Story Editor) :
Job description: Member of the writing staff with a few or more years of experience. Contribute material in the room.
Key skill(s) for success: creativity, problem-solving, being a good writer
- Staff Writer (entry-level writer on staff):
Job description: All members of the writing staff aside from the showrunner are considered to be “on staff” and all are called “writers,” but the official designation “staff writer” is reserved for the first rung of writers on staff.
Key skill(s) for success: creativity, being a good writer, being a good listener/learner
- Script Coordinator:
Job description: Head writers’ assistant. In charge of distribution of scripts and writing calendar (when outlines and drafts are assigned and when they are turned-in). Performs all other functions of Writers’ Assistant.
Key skill(s) for success: Ability to listen to multiple voices at the same time. Ability to type quickly and accurately. Organizational skills. Good writer.
- Writers’ Assistant:
Job description: Typing up the script and ideas as the writers are pitching under the direction of the showrunner who has the final say about all content. May write a script in the season. Learns how to pitch.
Key skill(s) for success: Ability to listen and type (quickly) at the same time, writing ability
- Writers’ Production Assistant (Writers’ PA):
Job description: Assists the writers and can fill in for the writers’ assistant on occasion. Goes on lunch, coffee, and dinner runs for the writers. Learns how the writers’ room works.
Key skill(s) for success: enthusiasm, willingness to work hard and do a good job
- Production Assistant (entry-level job):
Job description: Not necessarily on the “writer track,” PAs support the entire production on various levels, going on food runs, helping in the production office and on the stage, assisting talent, even directing traffic in the parking lot among many other things.
Key skill(s) for success: enthusiasm and willingness to work hard and do a good job
Job description: varies, depending on your area of focus
Key skill(s) for success: interest in the entertainment industry, willingness to work hard and do a good job