Working In the Writers' Room
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Hi from La La Land! My name’s Darika and I’m a Los Angelian working as a Writers’ Assistant/Script Coordinator for NBC’s scripted summer series, The Night Shift. I’ve graciously been given the opportunity to write a post for Generator’s Blog, so I thought I’d share what my job entails, as it’ll give you an insight into the writing side of the American TV industry (and a rough idea of how to break into it).
First things first, here’s a little about US Writers’ rooms:
- A show’s season typically runs for 6-9 months.
- On average, I’d say the rooms have about 6-12 writers on staff.
- Work days tend to run from 10am (a later start to avoid LA traffic) to 7pm (or as late as they decide to go).
- The Writers will pitch ideas together, then the Showrunner will assign one of them to write the script.
- The writing world runs on hierarchy. Most of the credits you’ll see at the beginning of TV shows are actually Writers, even though they’re credited as Producers. The titles are there to indicate pay/level.
I started as the Writers’ Production Assistant. The Writers’ PA is kind of what you’d call a Runner in the UK – basically the unspoken hero of the office. A typical day for me would be: arrive at 9am, wash dishes, tidy the room, print new scripts/pages that had come out, collect lunch orders (good Lord was this a challenge), put in the order, return with lunch, clean up lunch, go on an office supply/snack run, then I’d usually have an hour or two to work on my own writing (I was lucky that this was encouraged at my show!), then ask if anyone wanted any dinner. An army marches on it’s stomach, evidently. On Fridays I had to collect timecards for all the Assistants and turn them in along with a petty cash form and any receipts from the company card.
I’m sure you’d agree that the duties described are pretty idiot-proof, but it’s important to keep in mind that people notice things. While you won’t get thanked for going to 4 different stores to find an extremely specific gluten free bread that ends up in the freezer untouched for the entire season, in the end people remember attitude, work ethic, and frankly if you were fun to be around. Writers’ PA is often the first step to becoming a TV Writer and the connections you make are priceless. And believe it or not, the position is extremely coveted within Hollywood. There are 10ish Writers for every show. There’s only 1 Writers’ PA. Yikes!
I was promoted to Writers’ Assistant/Script Coordinator the following season. The Writers’ Assistant takes notes in the room while the Writers pitch. This is awesome because you get tons of face-time will the Writers (maybe too much - 12 hours in a windowless room is lonnnng no matter how much you love your job). While this might sound like the easiest gig in the world - don’t be fooled. You’re the person in the corner typing 100+ words a minute while 12 people talk over each other and change the subject 14 times. Believe me, nothing is worse than the moment of panic when you’ve zoned out as a Writer talks about their nanny’s nephew’s birthday party, only to suddenly hear “Darika, did you get that?”, because while you were thinking of pogosticking on a cloud they had transitioned the conversation from birthday party to medical mystery.
I’m really lucky because my show’s room allows the WA/SC to pitch ideas along with the Writers. A couple of mine even made it into the scripts this season! Other rooms are really strict about who gets to pitch, and Assistants are often left out of that equation.
Script Coordinator is an entirely different animal. This position involves proofreading the script at 4 different phases: Studio Draft, Network Draft, Production Draft, and then any revision pages that pop up during the shooting of the episode. SCs are on call pretty much 24/7 when production starts. I could get a script with no warning at 10pm on a Tuesday and be expected to start proofing then and there. I’ve heard of other SCs missing their own birthday parties, stepping out of weddings, etc. The second part of Script Coordinator duties is paperwork, paperwork, paperwork. You’re the one in charge of making sure the writers get paid - and boy do they want to get paid!
I really appreciate my show combining the WA/SC positions. Firstly, you get to be in the room! Most SC positions only eat lunch with the writers, then are alone in their own office. Secondly, since on our show there are two of us, we do every other episode. So for 2ish weeks out of each month, we don’t have to worry so much about the spontaneous 1am script because one of us is doing odd episodes and the other even. Thirdly, you have someone who has your back/is a sounding board.
From here, it just depends on the show/Showrunner. Some shows make it very clear they don’t promote from within. But others are great about it, and that’s how multiple Staff Writers I know were able to make the jump from Assistant to full on actual Writer! I would say, from the people I know, the average time to be an Assistant before getting staffed is 6-8 years (yup). But don’t be discouraged! The years will fly by, you’ll meet marvellous people along the way, and you’ll build up your own portfolio of work.
I don’t know how applicable this was for all you writing dreamers in the UK, but if you have any questions about anything I’ve said, or the industry in general, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll try to get back to you.
Also don't forget to check out The Night Shift seasons 1-3, which are currently on British Netflix.