Advice for New Television Staff Writers

A friend of mine recently got his first job as a staff writer on a TV show, and he asked if I had any advice.

Though I don’t claim to be an expert on this stuff, I did a quick poll of the writers on Santa Clarita Diet and asked what they would tell a new writer joining a TV staff for the first time…

Your Job Is to Make the Showrunner’s Life Easier

Never forget that your job is to make the showrunner’s life easier and not harder. Your job is to help them make the show they want to make and not the show you want to make.

Pitch Solutions, Not Problems

Try to always pitch solutions, not problems. At the staff writer level (and even above), you don’t want to be in the role of nag or complainer. That doesn’t mean you can’t criticize anything, but you should be constructive.

So instead of saying, “this story isn’t working because the beginning is boring,” you would think of a potential fix before speaking. You might say something like: “I feel like the story is taking a long time to get started. What if we combined these two early scenes into one so that the story gets moving faster?”

It doesn’t have to be the perfect fix, but you should be presenting more than just a complaint.

How Much to Talk

This is always tricky. It’s okay as the staff writer to hang back and listen, especially the first few weeks. In general you always want to be listening. At the same time, you don’t want to take that advice too far. It is your job to contribute, so you want to pick your spots.

In picking your spots, you might find a situation where you have some personal life experience that relates to the scene or character being discussed. Something that only you can contribute. But obviously no need to force that kind of connection if it’s not there.

How to Speak

When you do pitch, try to pitch clearly. Not just the ideas you’re pitching, but literally the voice you use. Don’t mumble or hide.

Don’t Whine/Complain

There may be older writers on a staff who openly complain or whine about some element of the show or something else, and it will be tempting to join in with them. But as a staff writer you haven’t earned the right to complain.

When to Give Up on an Idea

In general, only pitch an idea once. If it’s explicitly rejected, let it be rejected and move on. The showrunner’s decision may seem wrong to you. You may think to yourself, “if only these dummies would listen to my great idea, this problem would be solved!”

Here’s one way I think about it. Imagine the writers room like an old-fashioned galley ship with hundreds of oarsmen all rowing in unison. As a staff writer, you’re oarsman #137 and you’re all the way in the back of the ship. Now you may or may not have a better idea of where to steer the ship than the captain up front, but if you try to steer the ship yourself, all you’re going to do is screw up everyone else’s rhythm. At the end of the day, you can’t steer the ship from the back.

The showrunner has different concerns than you do, some that you may not even be aware of. Again, it’s your job to help him or her make the show they want to make, not the show you want to make. So if your idea is rejected, it’s your job to do everything possible to execute the idea the showrunner has settled on as well as possible.

If you make a pitch and it’s greeted with silence, that’s also a polite way of saying no.

As you get more comfortable in the room, you might find a situation where you can re-pitch a modified version of an idea that was already rejected, but just make sure you’re not beating a dead horse.

No One Cares Where Good Ideas Come From

If you have a pitch that goes over well, don’t brag about it or think you’re somehow superior to someone else whose pitch didn’t land today. Yes, you want the showrunner and other writers to know that you’re doing a good job, but the way you do that is by consistently doing a good job, not by pointing it out to them.

Likewise, you may pitch a solution, and it may be rejected. Then, months later during a rewrite, or sometimes minutes later during the same session, you may hear someone else, even the showrunner, pitch virtually the same idea and it’s suddenly accepted. In these moments you nod and support the good idea; you don’t grouse and try to claim credit. No one will be impressed by you pointing it out.

Sometimes the room isn’t ready for an idea, and part of pitching is knowing when and where to pitch something.

First Story Area or Outline

This isn’t universal, but if you befriend some of the more experienced writers on the staff, you may be able to politely ask one to offer feedback on your first story area before you turn it into the showrunner.

This is most useful if it’s someone who has worked with the showrunner before and knows what they like and don’t like.