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Writing for television is different from writing feature films. "TV is a writer's medium," says producer Harry Waterson (Soap, Benson, The Golden Girls). "In episodic television, the writers run the production and the director is mostly just a hired hand. Features are a director's medium and the writer is the hired hand. Witness how many feature writers want to direct so they can have a say in how their script is produced."
Besides talent, what does an aspiring TV writer need? "Speed, smarts, a thick hide, and the ability to write and rewrite as part of a group," says Waterson. He explains further:
Speed: Episodic television is a constant stream of deadlines generating rewrite after rewrite. Locking the script is usually an unfulfilled dream.
Smarts: The episodic TV writer works on as many as half a dozen scripts at a time in various stages of prep or production. He needs to keep all of this straight in his head and to foresee the production traps his writing will generate.
A thick hide: The episodic TV writer has to accept that nothing is written in stone. The rewrite he has just slaved over is immediately given to another staff writer to fix. Or the actor who reads his dialogue doesn't understand it and therefore hates it and wants it rewritten. This has to be done for a run-through two hours from now.
Writing and rewriting as part of a group: Writing is normally a solitary game. Not in episodic television. Talent is very scarce. Writers who can do it all are even rarer. So there are writers who are good at dialogue, good at joke, good at plot construction, good at springboards, or just good at keeping everybody in the room happy. It's the head writer and/or show runner who keeps all these writers on his staff rubbing along together and getting shows done.
How does a new writer break in?
"When a series first goes on the air, there is no backlog of material and the writers are still finding their way," says Waterson. "They're living from hand to mouth. The head writer is going nuts with writers who aren't delivering his vision. He's on the phone daily to his agent looking for help. Should the agent get a spec script for that new series that conforms to the head writer's vision, he'll surely share it with his client, the aforementioned frantic head writer. Speed is of the essence here."
Competition for TV writing gigs is fierce, the pace is grueling, and the culture takes some getting used to. But if you thrive on pressure and love the creative exchange of collaboration, TV might be your medium.
Screenplay, Writing the Picture by Robin U. Russin and William Missouri Downs