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How to land a writing gig on a TV show? (Readers’ Mail)

Finding a job as TV writer is work in of itself.
Which brings us to this week’s Readers’ Mail. Judy asks:

I have a few spec scripts for specific TV shows and a few ideas for shows currently on the air. Who does one contact (at the show or at the network, production company? studio?) to see if they’re accepting spec scripts and queries for possibly landing a gig or even writing internship? what is the protocol for that?
I’ve read so much on it but there seems to be a lot of varying opinions on how to get your feet in the door.
Will having an agent help? And if so, what should I expect my agent to do regarding getting me a gig writing for TV?

These are all common industry questions, most of them without a simple answer. But I’ll give all the truths to you right now.
Time for the ultimate hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy television writing. Or just a long post about it.

Freelance Scripts

To be blunt, no scripted TV show accepts specs/unsolicited queries nowadays. (At least as far as I know.)
There can be a few “freelance” scripts a year a show has to give out (under WGA ruling), but they usually hand them out to writers assistants or known quantities of the showrunner/staffed writers. It hasn’t been since the days of Star Trek that random people could send in episodic ideas and be seriously considered for freelance scripts.
You can also add on top that the plethora of legal reasons why networks/production companies would never even open an envelope with an unsolicited script inside it. Many TV writers on Twitter actually straight-up block people tweeting story ideas to them.

Staffed by an Agent

When it comes to actually getting staffed on a show, that’s a whole other business in of itself. Since we’ve already seen the basics of how to get an agent, I’ll cover that side of it—one of the main keys to the gate.
During staffing season, for an “outside writer” (more on that in a second), an agent is basically the only way to make the rounds. S/he will send your scripts/samples to various shows to be read, and potentially get you a staffing meeting out of it. The agent should have previously secured some general meetings so you can start having relationships with the various decisions makers (studios, executives, producers, etc.).
Of course, that doesn’t mean agent = job. Despite numerous writing positions available, it’s becoming increasingly harder to get staffed, even when you’ve got all your ducks lined up. It’s a common misconception that, once you get an agent, you can rest on your laurels. In fact, that’s when you should network even more with professional writers. An agent will be able to validate these relationships by sending them your scripts (assuming they requested them).
The point is that when you’re first starting out, you don’t necesarilly need an agent. If one already wants you, that’s amazing, but I’d focus on perfecting spec scripts and networking with relevant people.

I also said staffed as an “outside writer” in that another common way to get your first writing credit is to climb up the ladder from the inside (e.g.: by being a writer’s assistant). It completely depends on the show (and showrunner), but it’s not uncommon for the assistant to get, after a couple of years, a crack at writing her/his own episode (see previous comment about who gets freelance scripts).
Obviously, you can “know” someone on the writing side of the show, and he/she could slip your script in the “potentially staffable” pile. Being BFFs with the showrunner/people involved in staffing decisions is a definite plus. But that’s more about calling in a few favors from personal relationships than anything else.

The Spec Scripts

Regardless of how it’s sent out, you should never forward your spec script to that same specced show (i.e. don’t send a New Girl spec to the New Girl people). Since the writers clearly know the show more than anyone else, they’d only focus on the negative. However good the imitation is, it still is just an imitation. The idea is you want to spec something tonally similar to the show you want to land on. I wrote more about this and nine other TV spec rules in a previous post. Also check out my drama spec list and comedy spec list for up-to-date information on which show(s) to pick.

As a general industry comment, except for fellowships (see below), specs of existing shows are becoming less and less useful. Nowadays, people mostly want to see an original voice, through original spec pilots. With that said, it is still vital to have at least one or two specs in your arsenal.

The Fellowships

Finally, there are the programs, of which I’ve already discussed the six main TV writing fellowships. Deadlines are around May/Spring, with most of them requiring at least one spec from an on-air existing show (some in its second season or later).
These are not writing training programs per se (another misconception), but rather “professional” fellowships, teaching you the TV writing business so you can become a staff writer. The underlying conceit being that you’re already a great writer (which will be apparent to them through the application process).

This very long story short, the bottom line is: there are no magic bullets to getting staffed on a show (and even landing a freelance gig). It takes time, effort, and, yes, relationships.

Hopefully, I’ve adequately answered the questions you had. :)

If you (who’s reading this) have a question you’d like an answer to, feel free to comment below or e-mail me directly.

Write on.

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6 Comments

  1. Joel K. Joel K.

    Question: My tentative Gotham script takes place between the 1st and 2nd season. Would I be okay as long as I don’t attempt to explain too many things that might turn up in the upcoming 3rd season? (Note: My script is actually trying to explain something that happened in the 1st season’s finale with Selina Kyle).

  2. Joel: This sounds perfectly fine. I wouldn’t worry too much about not upsetting the apple cart, especially since Gotham is still a kind of network procedural.

  3. Christian Chedrawi Christian Chedrawi

    Love this! In fact, I just discovered your website and I’ve been reading all these articles for hours now, I’m hooked.

    The only downside to getting ALL this information in now is that it does sound scary. I’m constantly torn between “I can achieve my dream of being the showrunner of my own series one day” to “this is too far-fetched, regardless of how passionate I am”. This back and forth constantly weighs me down. Any advice on how to beat that “negative” voice inside your head that sometimes tells you ‘stop dreaming, it’s impossible’?

  4. Christian:
    That is a great question, and in fact part of why I made this site in the first place.
    Oftentimes this industry is hard, but I think about the bigger picture and what I want to accomplish. Think about breaking things into steps. What exactly do I need to do to get an assistant job? What do I need to do to get my scripts done?

    Although not quite that topic, I did a couple Paper Team podcast episodes on the subject of the “TV Writer’s Mindset” and “Goal-Setting as a TV Writer”, which you can find here:
    https://www.tv-calling.com/the-tv-writers-mindset-dealing-with-procrastination-blank-page-and-the-muse-pt17/
    https://www.tv-calling.com/goal-setting-as-a-tv-writer-planning-your-year-ahead-pt26/

    I’m definitely planning on writing about this and/or doing an episode dealing with the more “negative” aspect of what we do.
    In my mind, the most important thing you can do to pursuing your passion is continuing to crank out those awesome scripts.

    Write on!

  5. Are spec scripts just window dressing or they actually read? Your article sounds like they will never be read.

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