The two paths to becoming a TV writer: Development vs. staffing
by Adam Giaudrone
Let me start off by saying most people don’t have much of a choice in which path that they ultimately take… I know that I certainly didn’t.
But let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that this hypothetical world exists. A world where an inexperienced writer was actually given a choice between development or staffing early on in their career. I haven’t done any official polls or anything, but I suspect that most TV writers (as cocky and ambitious as many of us tend to be at that age) would choose to skip straight to the front of the line, and opt for creating their own show. I mean, why wouldn’t you, right?
Well, as someone who was lucky enough to not only sell their first pitch, get it shot as a pilot, and then actually see it make it onto the Fall schedule (though ever so briefly), let me be the first one to caution you: Be careful what you wish for.
After years of grinding it out as a writers’ assistant on various TV shows and pilots, I had finally been given my first opportunity to work as a staff writer on a series for CBS. That’s when the writers’ strike brought what I had hoped would be the start of a burgeoning career to a sudden and screeching halt.
After walking the picket lines in solidarity for a Guild that had just made me a member, an assistant friend called and asked if I wanted to come in to meet with her bosses. Um, okay. And yes, please. They had apparently read a spec script that I’d written about the fashion industry…
Nine meetings and two studio pitches later, I sold my first network pitch in the room to the CW.
Truth be told, after the cancellation of the show, I went on to sell my next three original pitches as well, giving me a grand total of four.
By now you’re probably thinking, shut the f— up, and stop bragging already. But trust me, my sharing this info with you has nothing to do with ego (alright, maybe a little), and everything to do with setting the baseline for the advice that I’m about to offer.
Can I pitch fairly well? Yes.
Am I a pretty decent writer? I’d like to think so.
But did any of this – the four sold pilots included – actually teach me what it means to be a successful TV writer? Sadly, I’d have to say no, not really.
Did I learn a great deal along the way? Of course. You’d have to be an idiot not to. It definitely made me a better writer… taught me how to take and execute notes… and gave me a great deal of insight into the politics of Hollywood. I just feel like there’s a better way to learn these same lessons than being out on your own, trying to write pilots.
Whenever I’m asked about how to become a TV writer, I offer the following advice without a moment of hesitation:
1) Get a job on a TV show (whether that be as a P.A., an assistant, or if you’re lucky, as a staff writer), then work your way up through the ranks, one rung at a time.
2) Learn all that you can about every department, from post to props to casting. Because once you become a writer/producer, you’ll need a working knowledge that extends far beyond the writers’ room.
3) Read. This seems obvious, but you’d be shocked at how many people claim to want to be writers, yet say that they “don’t have time to read.” Read everything you can get your hands on: from scripts, to essays, to short stories, to books (both fiction and non-fiction).
4) Watch TV (it’s your job!). Know all the shows in your desired genre (at least watch the pilots). Knowing the marketplace not only prepares you for staffing opportunities, but will inform what you should and shouldn’t do when working on your original material.
5) And just keep writing. Generating your own material is invaluable, even after getting staffed. The more you write, the faster you’ll hone your craft, build up your portfolio of samples, and prepare yourself to eventually take that dark and scary path into development.
Some people wonder, had my first show gone on to be a success, would I be singing a different tune right now about development? Probably. But only because my personal experiences, along with the path of my career, would have been wildly different.
That said, if I had a time machine and could go back to do all over again, I still wouldn’t change a thing. When the stars align for an emerging writer, such as they did for me, you take your shot, plain and simple. Who knows, you may be sitting on a winning lottery ticket.
But this article was never about whether we should be taking risks or chasing that Hollywood dream, it’s about which path that I feel offers anyone who aspires to do this for a living the best chance at having a long and fruitful career as a TV writer.
And in my humble opinion, especially when you’re just getting started, development can wait. Get yourself on a writing staff, and soak up all that you can from those other talented (and much more experienced) people who join you at the table.
Speaking of opinions, since we all have one, I’d love to hear yours. Find me on Twitter, if you have any questions, comments, or insights that you’d like to add to the conversation. Other than that, I wish you the best of luck, and encourage you to keep writing!Tags: Adam Giaudrone, Be careful what you wish for, Entertainment industry, Hollywood, Selling a pilot, Television (TV), TV development, TV staffing, TV writer