It’s June, which means TV writers’ rooms for the next season are opening for business. Most of the people in those rooms are veteran writers who (hopefully) need no advice. A lucky few are first-time writers who will need a lot of advice, but they’ll get none from me. (Y’all are on your own.*) No, this post is for the other people who make their living in a TV writers’ room; the true, unsung heroes of television. The Writers’ Assistants.
(*Okay, fine, here is one bit of advice for first-time staff writers — don’t feel like you have to prove your worth right out the gate. Relax. You got the job over millions of well-qualified writers, so you wouldn’t be there if someone didn’t really believe in your abilities. Take some time to get a feel for how the room works and do a lot more listening than you do talking for the first couple weeks.)
When I say “writers’ assistant,” I don’t mean “assistant to a writer.” The latter job requires rolling calls, setting meetings, and planning surprise birthday parties for your boss’s spouse and/or boyfriend. I’m talking about the assistants paid to assist a process, not a person. Writers’ assistants sit in the writers room, taking notes, conducting research, and providing the writing staff with all the materials/support they need to meet their increasingly tight deadlines. Most writers’ rooms have between 6-12 writers, but only one writers’ assistant. In that regard, it’s a pretty hard job to get in it’s own right. It’s also a hard job to keep. The process of making a TV series moves too quickly to afford a new writers’ assistant a “breaking in” period. I hear about more writers’ assistants getting let go because they couldn’t cut it than I do any other job on a TV show staff. (Staff writer is a close second, but I’ll get to that in another post.) But don’t worry. If you’re new to the gig, read this, and you’ll be prepared for anything.
Note: The advice below pertains to any show with pretty active writers room, which includes all half-hours and most one-hours. If you get a job as a writers’ assistant on a show that doesn’t have a daily convening writers’ room… don’t go crazy with the balloons while planning that surprise party.
Okay, I just got a job as a writers’ assistant. Now what?
The vast majority of your time will be taking notes. This is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that it puts you squarely in the middle of every discussion that will take place about the content of the show. The curse is that you will be doing A LOT of typing, and the faster you are at typing, the faster they WILL talk. Guaranteed. It’s just one of those mysteries of the universe. If you take nothing else from this post, it should be this: nothing disturbs a writer more than looking over and seeing that no one wrote down what they just said. You are as much a comfort blanket as you are anything else. It’s comforting for the writer/producers to know what they just said is on the record somewhere. Embrace the roll of the blanket (just don’t smother anyone). Keep your fingers moving while the writers talk. When I was a writers assistant, I basically took straight dictation. Sure, that means there’ll be a lot of redundant material in the notes as room discussions frequently move in circles, but it’s better than the opposite. As the writers learn to trust you, you can take your fingers off the keyboard a bit and use more discretion about what really needs to be in the notes, but for your first month or so, err on the side of “more is better.” Paraphrasing is okay, unless people are pitching specific lines of dialogue, then you’ll want to make sure you get the pitch word-for-word. Don’t worry about keeping track of who says what. That’s not your job and, honestly, it’s better you don’t try to attribute any specific ideas to any specific person. Develop a shorthand if you must, something to remind you what was said so you can flesh it out later, when you have more time. Do not hesitate to ask a writer to repeat something they just said. They’ll love that you cared. Whenever the topic in the room changes — and it can change quickly — put a header in the notes reflecting that: “Moving onto episode 102…” or “Let’s now talk about all the ways to kill Peter…” or something like that. Put the header in italics, on its own line.
Oh, and stay off social media while the room is going. Yes, you’re a millennial, and millennials were born with an extra gene for multi-tasking, but unless your job also requires you to be monitoring social media accounts for the show, stay off them while in the room. Even the coolest, most laid back writer on staff will get a little anxious if they look over and see Facebook open on your computer.
Use bold to identify things people really, really liked. And when I say “people” I mean the showrunner. If the showrunner is in the room, and they toss out an idea, bold it. If someone else says something and the showrunner responds to it, bold it. Always keep your eye on the showrunner, to make sure you’ve noted what they liked. If the showrunner isn’t there, then look to the person who will be responsible for writing whatever episode is on the table. Remember, these notes are ultimately for them to refer to when they write their first drafts.
At the end of the day, before you email out the notes, always go through them. Typos will be forgiven, but it’s important to make sure the notes are clear and organized. Hopefully, while taking notes, you used a lot of headers, because that will make it easier to put a table of contents on the front page. Yes, I said table of contents. A good set of notes on a busy day can be 15-20+ pages long, covering a variety of topics over multiple episodes. You don’t need to be super detailed in the T.O.C., but if the writer for episode 104 wants to only read the notes pertaining to 104, they should know which pages of the notes to turn to quickly.
A lot of discussion will be devoted to general ideas for future episodes. That should be in the notes, but also keep a separate document for these. There should also be a board in the room dedicated to potential ideas for the future, but I’ll get to the board later.
NO, TELL ME ABOUT THE BOARD NOW. I DEMAND TO KNOW ABOUT THIS “BOARD” YOU SPEAK OF.
The white boards in a writers room are the writers assistant’s best friend. If something is on a white board at the end of the day, that must mean someone really, really liked it. Most rooms will have several boards set aside for whatever episode is being broken, another just for future episode ideas, and at least one with a grid showing what’s already been done that season. When you email out the notes, it’s very handy to include the content of the most current boards. Yes, you should take a picture of the boards for safekeeping, but do not email out the pictures because they are hard to read (and impossible to search). Just take the 10 minutes it’ll take to transcribe them. (Note: This is also a good task for an eager P.A.)
Who writes on the boards? Whoever has the best handwriting, usually. If you have good white board handwriting, let them know. It’s a plus.
Is it writers’ assistant, writer’s assistant, or writers assistant?
No clue. I go with the first, as the one in the middle implies a single writer (see “assistant to a writer” above), and the last uses “writers” as an adjective, which is weird.
[Edited to add: As Kate points out in the comments section, the only true spelling is “writers’ assistant,” and she’s totally right. Use the other spellings at your peril.]
When can I pitch the producers of the show my awesome ideas?
Here’s where you want to be careful. Most producers will tell you how approachable they are, how you can always come to them with anything, and that you should feel free to pitch stuff in the room as you “have a brain just like anyone else.” They are liars! Okay, they’re not liars. Most writers do genuinely care what the writers assistant has to say. And every showrunner values a good idea, regardless of where it comes from. But you have to be smart. Never talk just because you feel the need to say something, or because you’re worried they’ll think you’re mute. Remember, you were not hired to pitch jokes or story points, and that’s a GOOD THING. It takes the pressure off you to impress anyone. Let the staff writer feel all that pressure and get eaten alive by their insecurities. You shouldn’t feel any pressure to contribute creatively, and you should embrace that freedom.
If you want them to value what you have to say, it never hurts to remind them of good ideas that the room already generated. If the room is talking about ways to kill a character named Billy via poison, but you remember that last week the showrunner really liked the idea of killing Billy as violently as possible, speak up. Become a human archive of all the ideas that anyone liked, and you will be toasted like a king. They will want you to talk more, not less. Instant value, and you didn’t even have to think of anything original!
If you’re taking notes and you just happen to come up with an “awesome idea” you think would help really, really the discussion, wait until there’s a lull before saying anything. Make sure not to interrupt anyone. (That’s advice, by the way, for ANYONE in a writers room. Don’t interrupt people, particularly people who outrank you.) Or just wait until you have one-on-one time with one of the writers and tell them your idea, if the thought of speaking up in the room is too nerve-wracking.
When can I show them my writing samples?
When they ask, and only when they ask.
What happens between the time when the room is done breaking an episode and the writer goes off to write it?
Excellent question. I can see why you got the job. Once the room feels like the individual stories of a particular episode are fully fleshed out — and that call will be made by the ranking writer/producer in the room — the showrunner will come in, and (usually) the writer of the episode will pitch the A, B, and C stories to the showrunner. Basically, the writer will pitch all the beats that are on the board. Before the pitch begins, make sure you have those beats already in a document. Then, as the writer pitches every beat on the board, take down everything the showrunner says. At the end of the pitch session, you should have a document that reflects all the beats the showrunner likes plus their thoughts. That should be enough for the writer to put together a “Story Doc” (i.e. the document sent to the network/studio for story approval.)
After the story doc, comes the outline. The writer will go off for an afternoon and mesh all the individual stories together into one timeline. The writer — with your help — will put this timeline on a board (sometimes a white board, sometimes it’s via cards on a bulletin board) and then the writer will pitch the timeline to the showrunner. Again, when taking notes, start with a document that already has all the beats on it, then adjust the doc as the order of the beats change during the pitch (which they will), making sure to include the showrunner’s thoughts.
When the pitch is done… you’ve still got some work to do. Take that document and clean it up. It should read like a detailed beat sheet that covers the entire episode. THEN, if you really want to show off, cut and paste relevant materials from earlier notes on the episode (because you’ve kept them organized and easily searchable) next to each beat. For example, if there was a specific dialogue exchange you know the writer liked at a certain point in the story, remind the writer about it here. NOW you can send this document to the writer for them to write the outline. If you’ve done your job well, they should be able to turn your detailed beat sheet into an outline with little effort. They will love you for that.
Is it my job to make sure the writers’ room is clean and tidy?
Technically, the P.A. is usually tasked with that, but if the room is messy, the first person to feel the heat is you. So, yeah, keep it tidy.
What other things should I do if I want to impress the producers and writers?
In no particular order —
Keep a show bible. No one will ask you do this on a season one show, but if the show gets a 2nd season, they’ll be really glad it exists. Just a page or two per episode, with a brief summary and any noteworthy character traits revealed in that episode.
Do research. If you’re on a procedural, constantly be surfing the web for possible story inspiration. Then, if you really want to impress the showrunner, when you share your findings, have a brief take for how your show could handle it. You don’t need to pitch a whole story — in fact, you shouldn’t, unless you’re asked — but a real headline and a vague sense of how your characters would deal with it will always be appreciated.
Volunteer to make the occasional coffee run. A lot of writers’ assistants view this as “P.A.-only” work and hate doing it. They are stupid. Nothing makes people in power happier than getting coffee delivered to them mid-day. Be the source of their happiness. This is both an easy way to stretch your legs and put a smile on your co-workers’ faces. Let them associate you with good feelings.
Don’t unload your problems on your co-workers. You will think that all the writers and producers are your friends. They will act like your friends. They may even become actual, good friends at some point down the line. But this is still a workplace. Though writers have a tendency to overshare about their problems in the writers room, it’s usually not a good idea to do so yourself. I’ve seen more people get stung by their room revelations than helped by them. If you have a personal experience relevant to the discussion in the room, go for it. But if you just need to kvetch about your girlfriend dumping you for the 12th time in a same calendar year, you might want to keep it to yourself.
Be the first one to arrive and the last one to leave. Showing up early should be easy, since most rooms convene at 10am, and most writers don’t arrive until then. But leaving can be tricky. Some writers will tell you to leave when they do, but if the showrunner is still there, you should hang back. You don’t have to wait for the showrunner to leave, but you should at least check in with them, asking if they need anything done before you go.
When should I expect to be given a script and/or promotion to full writer?
You shouldn’t. As great as it would be for writers assistants to be treated like apprentices who’d be next in line when the show needs a new writer, the reality is that most assistants will never get a chance to write for the show they work for. This isn’t because TV producers are greedy or ungrateful, it’s just a simple fact of the business. This isn’t bad news, though. You want a job as writers’ assistant so you can be in a writers’ room. Nothing prepares you for being a staff writer more than actual room experience, whenever and wherever you can get it. And you will work tightly with a bunch of writers that — if they like your work & attitude — will be happy to help your career further down the line. (Note: I said “down the line.”)
As for a chance to write a freelance script, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) encourages all shows to give out freelance scripts at least once or twice a season (depending on how many episodes are being produced overall). There are people on the internet who think it’s bad when showrunners give freelance scripts to assistants, as if assistants are benefiting from favoritism more than merit. These people are wrong and they are quite possibly evil. Being a writers’ assistant is a very low paying job with very long hours. You will frequently wind up contributing to the show more than people paid many times what you get paid (sadly, every show winds up with at least one highly paid writer who fails to carry their own weight, let alone their massive salary). Just because you are at the assistant level, that does not diminish your abilities to write on a freelance level. Do some showrunners give scripts out to assistants with zero intention to take the script seriously? Yeah. But those same showrunners would be planning to completely rewrite anyone who got that same freelance, even a more seasoned writer needing a short-time gig. If a showrunner wants to give a freelance script to an out-of-work TV writer who needs to keep their WGA health insurance going, that’s great. If they want to give the script to a former staffer who the showunner trusts to lessen their workload, that also makes sense. And if the showrunner wants to give it to an assistant who has earned their respect not just as a member of the support team, but also as a writer themselves, that’s a perfectly valid reason. All that said, don’t count on it or get discouraged if it doesn’t happen. Getting a freelance script is a wonderful opportunity when it arises, but it’s in no way guaranteed.
If I’m too good at my job, why would they ever promote me, especially if the showrunner feels like they’re getting an extra writer in the room at an assistant’s salary?
I’m not going to lie and say that “no showrunner has ever kept someone at the assistant level purely for financial reasons.” But doing a crappy job definitely won’t get you that promotion, nor recommendations for other gigs. So do a good job, okay? Don’t overthink this.
I work on a half-hour/multi-camera sitcom. Anything else I need to know?
In addition to all the above, there will also be times when the whole room will go through the entire script line-by-line, and you will be responsible for making all the official changes. Your computer will be hooked up to a screen, allowing every writer to see what you type, and you will be tempted to ironically insert writers’ room in-jokes into the script, for everyone to see, before you erase them. These can be (sometimes) hilarious. If you do such a thing, ALWAYS REMEMBER TO DELETE THEM before you move onto the next scene. There’s a story about the writers’ assistant on certain uber-popular ’90s sitcom adding a parenthetical — (DOUCHEY) — next to a specific character’s dialogue. It was funny to the room because everyone thought this particularly cast member was, indeed, a douche. The parenthetical was not erased, though, and made it into the printed script, which the actor saw during the next rehearsal. Fortunately for the writers assistant, the actor took it as an acting prompt and not as a actual statement on his douchiness. According to the story, the actor asked the director “Why would I say this line like a douche?” At least, that’s how the story goes. Is it true? Probably.
How am I supposed to keep track of all these notes, boards, research, etc.?
Evernote. Install the app on your laptop, your tablet, and your smartphone. Create folders for each episode, keep all materials relevant to each episode — board photos, web clippings, etc. — in the corresponding folder. You’ll be golden.
When will I have time to work on my own material?
You’ll have to make time. Being a writers’ assistant can be draining. You’ll get home and want to go right to sleep. On the weekend, you’ll just want to relax. But, remember, if you don’t want to be a writers assistant forever, you will need samples that can show off your writing ability. Don’t wait until hiatus to work on them. Make the time during the season.
Why do I want this job again?
Because it’s the best non-writing job in Hollywood. Seriously.