A TV writer writes stories that will be seen by a viewing audience. Unlike novelists or poets, whose final product are words on a page, a television writer’s script is the beginning, rather than the end, of the creative process. Along the way, we collaborate with a myriad of talented professionals, including actors, directors, studio and network executives, line producers, cinematographers, editors, production designers, production staffers, set designers, wardrobe designers, hair and makeup artists, camera operators, and a variety of other experts in their fields to bring our stories to the screen. In a sense, we are like architects who develop a blueprint for the construction of a television show, but we also continue to modify that blueprint through the construction process as per input from the other experts that we work with.
A TV writer knows the audience will be watching the story that is being written, so it’s important to follow the "show, don't tell" tenet of good writing. Long chunks of dialogue are fun to write, but where will the actors be and what will they be doing while they’re delivering that dialogue? If a television script is not both aurally and visually interesting, then it needs to be rewritten so that it is.
As with many jobs in the entertainment industry, titles can be deceiving. An executive producer can be a writer on staff, an accomplished unit production manager, a star’s talent manager, or the showrunner - all with very different duties and responsibilities. On the other hand, staff writers, story editors, executive story editors, co-producers, producers, and supervising producers on a sitcom writing staff all perform very similar functions in pitching stories, fixes, and jokes, and generally supporting the vision of the showrunner. And the writers on a television sitcom staff all have a different daily routine than the writer who's writing a pilot in hopes of getting a job on a TV show while waiting tables or driving Uber to pay rent. We'll look at both.
- Writing for a TV Show
- Process of Writing a TV Show Episode
- TV Writers Getting Started or Between Gigs
- Other Things TV Writers Do
Writing for a TV Show
The writing process for a TV show that's on a network or a streaming service is highly collaborative. A television writer doesn't sit alone at a desk to write scripts for entire sitcom episodes, hand them to the actors for filming and go home. Rather, a team of TV writers works together in the writers' room under the direction of the showrunner (usually an established writer/producer who may also have helped create the show). Great television staff writers pitch ideas that both support and help shape the showrunner's vision for the show.
In TV writing, between when the writers break the story and when the episode is finalized, countless rewrites and edits take place. Rewrites are happening as the actors are rehearsing. Rewrites may happen during recording. They may even happen after everything has been shot as actors record new lines in an ADR session.
What's the Process for Writing a TV Show?
Breaking the Story
The TV writers gather around a big table in the writers' room at the beginning of the season, before anything is in production, and discuss where they think the show and its characters should go for that season under the direction of the showrunner. Will characters get together? Will they break-up? Will they deal with an illness? Will they get a new job or get fired from their old one? Will they drop out of school or get a new degree? These questions about the characters’ respective “arcs” help to define what the individual episodes will look like.
We also just throw around ideas that we think might be fun to watch. When several writers get excited about an idea, we usually know that we are in the right area and we begin to discuss just how the story would play out - its beginning, middle, and end. During this, the showrunner indicates to a writer’s assistant (who is usually an aspiring TV writer) which of the writers’ pitches should be put into the notes. What's being typed by the writer's assistant appears on a screen that everyone is able to see.
During this process, the showrunner will listen to ideas that the writers pitch and give feedback: "Let's explore that idea more. What are the beats of the story?" or "Let's put a pin in that," if the idea doesn’t really go anywhere.
The Treatment and Outline
Once the concept is set, a one-page treatment is written. This contains the major events of the episode. For network television programs, the network (and the studio if there is one) must approve the treatment before it moves forward.
After the treatment is approved, the writers create a more detailed outline. The outline could be written by the writer who will write the episode, which is often—but not always—the writer who came up with the original idea, or in the room by all or part of the staff. The outline is a scene-by-scene breakdown of the treatment and details what each character does, where they are and what's going on. This might be seven to 15 pages and also needs to be approved by the network.
Writing the Script
Once everyone is happy with the outline, the writer of record goes “off to script.” This might be the only solitary writing that takes place during the course of creating the episode. This writer will be the one who gets the "written by" credit that you see at the beginning of the episode when it airs on TV.
Alternatively, depending on where in the season the show is or what the turnaround time is for the script, the writers may "room write" the script, or write it together in the writers' room. If the script is room-written, the showrunner will decide who gets the "written by" credit, based on contracts and other factors. Sometimes a television writer will be contracted to write a set number of scripts per season.
The different elements of the script for television writing are:
Dialogue: what exactly are the actors saying? The outline might indicate a joke area or even take a stab at its content. In the script, the writers write out what the joke actually is.
The day: starting with day 1, with subsequent days indicated in the script, so the wardrobe people need to know how many wardrobe changes are needed for each character. This element is included for production, not for spec scripts.
Location: where is the scene being shot?
What's happening: are the actors in the living room, or is someone entering from the kitchen? Is the star sitting on a couch reading, or is she leaning on the kitchen counter holding a cup of coffee?
When the writer has finished the draft, everyone on the writing team reads it. Led by the showrunner, the writers discuss what works and what needs to be fixed and begin the process of tabling the script: rewriting the writer's draft in preparation for the table read.
Once the writing team is done with the script, the actors join the writers and "table read" the script, or read the script aloud, around a table in a conference room or on set. The director or assistant director reads stage directions. The actors aren't fully acting out the script yet, but they're performing as their characters. It's similar to a radio play. Network and studio executives and the writers are all taking notes. Everyone is evaluating what works and what doesn't work in the script.
After the table read, the actors and the director will move on to blocking the script down on the stage. There's a good chance the writers will be up in the writers' room, rewriting the script based on the notes from the network, studio, showrunner, and writers. This can turn into a late night, especially if the showrunner isn't decisive or clear about the vision for the episode. Generally, if the showrunner has good taste and a clear idea of where the episode is going, the rewrite happens quickly and the script improves with each iteration.
Producer and Network Run-Through
The next day, the actors do a producers run-through: performing the script the writers finished the night before. The writing staff watches the performance, laughs at what's funny and sometimes laughs at jokes that fall flat so the actors don't feel like they're flopping. And then the writers rewrite again, based on the producers run-through. The following day, the actors perform the rewritten script again for the network. Those executives give notes and the writers rewrite again, hopefully resulting in the final rewrite.
Rehearsal and Recording
At this point, the actors rehearse for a day or two, leading up to the TV show taping, if it is done in front of a live studio audience. For television shows that are recorded in front of an audience, rewrites may happen on the stage in front of everybody. Even though the words are off the page and now being performed by the actors, TV writers are still very much on duty at this point. They're watching and taking notes. In cases where a joke falls flat or an actor just can't quite make it work, they'll pitch on ideas for rewriting certain lines or even whole scenes. The writing doesn't end just because the cameras are rolling.
Once the show is taped, the rewrites are finally over. The show goes to editing. Music and bumpers are added. Editors assemble the footage under the guidance first of the showrunner and get the episode to time. (When you see a cut to the exterior of a house or building on a television show that lasts slightly longer than expected, that's probably in order to get it exactly to time.)
TV Writers Getting Started or Between Gigs
Most writers, even if they already have jobs in the television industry, have a few other projects of their own in the works. There are two types of sample scripts writers will have in their portfolios: original pilot scripts and spec scripts. Both types serve different purposes.
Original pilot: This is a script for the pilot episode of a television series that's the original work and concept of the writer. The writer has created the world, the characters, and the story. Pilots show that the writer is capable of writing an engaging story but also of developing characters, and writing solid dialogue for original characters’ voices.
Spec script: This is a script for an episode of a TV show that's already in production. Its purpose is to demonstrate the writer's ability to write a storyline that fits with the existing story of a show they didn’t create and write dialogue in the voices of those characters. Years ago, aspiring writers and those who were between shows would write spec scripts in hopes of having them bought and produced by the show for which they were written. This was a common practice and could lead to a writer earning a job on a writing staff. This practice doesn't happen much anymore.
Writers should have at least two pilot samples and one spec script. Studios often want to see two pilots, to show the writer can actually create stories and keep writing well. A spec would be important when the writer is trying to get hired onto an existing team, and the big question is whether she can write for the vision of the showrunner.
Other Career-Related Things TV Writers Do
Outside of the context of being a staff writer or another member of a writing team on an existing television show, the activities of a TV writer or aspiring TV writer who's trying to sell a pilot or get staffed on a TV show may include the following:
Writing: Writing is a craft that must be worked at continually, so the writer stays on top of his game and doesn't get rusty. Successful writers write a lot. Daily is often the ideal. This might mean working on a new pilot or developing a spec script, or it might be some other type of writing that's simply fun or challenging; either way, writers write.
Networking: Formal networking events aren't as common in the entertainment industry as they are in other sectors of the economy, but establishing meaningful professional relationships with other people is still important. These relationships often come about through a job in the industry, by being friendly with the people at work, or more casually: having industry friends who introduce you to their industry friends.
Reputable film schools provide incredible value for establishing these professional relationships. Writers graduate able to do the actual work of writing scripts, having written several samples, and they've built friendships with other talented people who are likely to pursue careers in the industry. They've also had the opportunity to participate in internships to gain hands-on experience and meet more people who are already working in the industry.
Preparing pitches: An established writer can go to a network, studio, or production company with an idea for a television series and pitch it to them. If they like the pitch, they might pay that writer to write a pilot for the series. Also, if one has a pilot already written, it can be pitched to a studio, network or production company. Developing this sort of sales pitch for why the buyer should invest in the idea or buy the pilot, requires a great deal of preparation and passion.
Talking with agents or managers: Established writers between gigs may check in with their representation to see what samples or pitches they should be working on next. They can also get feedback for new samples they’ve written from their representatives.
Talking with industry friends: Writers may check in with friends and former colleagues to see what they're working on and if they might like help in the form of giving notes or pitching ideas, or potentially collaborating on a project and writing something together.
Writers' groups: Though not common among established writers, a television writers’ group can be a way to get and give feedback on specific work like TV scripts. Most professional writers don’t share their work in settings like this, but for aspiring writers who are just getting started, this can be a useful way to hone skills, spark creativity and meet other writers. Groups like this can be found around Los Angeles, New York City and other areas with a television industry presence.
Interested in becoming a TV writer? Check out the B.A. in Writing for Film and Television.