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A television writer is a skilled writer responsible for the developing, writing, and revision of scripts so that they are ready for the silver screen. They are responsible for creating all plot lines, characters, dialogue and situations. Television writers usually work as part of a group of writers to ensure that scripts are written well and meet strict deadlines.
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A television writer is responsible for the production of a television series from the beginning processes of writing a script to the launch of a pilot episode. They prepare scripts for a wide range of television programs including soap operas, comedies, dramas and documentaries. A pilot episode may be “picked up” by a network for a contracted television series. Some writers also create ads for local sponsors, previews for upcoming shows and station announcements.
A major change has taken place in television production in recent years. No longer are studios spending millions of dollars on long-term development deals with writers in hopes that they will provide them with a hit show for the studio. More recently, studios engage writers to create or contribute pilot scripts to be considered for development.
A pilot script, also known as a pilot episode or series premiere, is the first episode in a television series. Pilot episodes are created as a test run to determine if a television series will be well received on air. The studio is granted a number of options to involve the writer in the process of writing and producing a script. The benefit to this is if the studio is not happy with a script, it can cut its losses early, while only having to pay the initial script fee. These deals, referred to as “one off’s”, are the dominant form of television series writing deals.
When a script is picked up for a pilot episode, the writer is involved in many aspects. He will be the one to hire the director of a given episode, work with a line producer to hire a crew, and supervise casting and post-production efforts. The head writer is also referred to as the “showrunner”.
As with any career in the writing world, the way to gain experience and build a portfolio is to write. A television writer builds something like a portfolio called a “spec script”. A spec script is a sample of writing that showcases a writer's knowledge of the craft and lets others know that he has an understanding of the format of television writing. It could be an original television pilot or a script for an existing show. A good spec will illuminate a writer's skills.
Once their foot is in the door, a television writer is under the gun to write shows that meet strict deadlines. When a writer is creating a spec script he can use as much or as little time as he/she needs. Working in television means a writer has to meet very short deadlines that may change day to day.
Television uses a lot of material. An hour long drama needs a new script every five to seven days. A typical TV deadline takes a week to go from an approved outline to a good first draft. A good writer should be able to accomplish it in four days, which leaves one day to fix mistakes. No one expects perfect work, but they do expect constructive work that can be built on. With such a demanding schedule, a writer is not allowed to have writer's block. It's just not an option. A schedule must be stuck to and a writer must be able to power through a script and make it happen.
The most negative thing a writer can do for a network is to deliver a show late. A network has a slot in their schedule for a show. If a show is late then the network will have to find something else to fill that slot with and that means money is lost and people lose their jobs.
Something else a writer has to take into account is the internal structure of television. Because commercial breaks are the bread and butter of television, the story needs to be structured with cliffhangers to take place at the end of an act, so that the audience will want to return to the show once the commercials end. A studio's goal is to keep the viewer tuned into the show, and to make them want to return for the next week's episode. It's vital that writers structure episodes in this way to keep the audience interested.
Writing a spec script can take up as much time of a writer's schedule as he/she needs as it only matters when the script is complete. When a writer is working with a network, he/she is on a strict schedule. Writers are usually part of a writing team to ensure that the writing can be completed well and on time. The writing team may consist of anywhere between four to twenty (or more) writers. This all depends on the budget, show, and the preference of the showrunner. This may mean a room full of people sketching ideas and writing scripts, surrounded by pots of coffee to keep up their energy. What matters most in a writing team is that the work is done efficiently and well so that a show can air on time.
Readers of my blog first became familiar with Marissa Jo Cerar in January 2013, after her spec screenplay Conversion was named to 2012’s The Black List. Following her placement, Marissa was generous enough to do an interview with me, sharing with my readers the insights, experiences and lessons that had brought her to that moment in her career.
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The television writer is the person responsible for creating all plot lines, dialogue, characters and situations. The writer also provides the initial story generation and outlines as well as all script rewrites and polishes.
How do I become a television writer if I don't have any contacts?