How do I become a television writer if I don’t have any contacts?

I get asked this question a lot…but it’s disingenuous, since I’m a
TV writer/producer and whoever is asking me that is really asking me to either read
their script or to invite them in to pitch. So, theoretically, they already
know somebody in the business.
They’re luckier than I was when I got started. I didn’t know
anybody in the TV industry. But I got in. How did I do it? Everybody’s story is
unique. Most of those stories, however, share one common element. You have to
put yourself in the right place to get your lucky break. And it’s easier than
you think. 

The first thing you have to do is learn your craft. Take
classes, preferably taught by people who have had some success as TV writers.
There’s no point taking a class from someone who isn’t an experienced TV writer

You’d think that would be common sense, but you’d be
astonished how many TV courses are taught by people who don’t know the first
thing about writing for television or who, through a fluke, sold a story to Manimal twenty years ago and think that
qualifies them to take your hundred bucks. Even more surprising is how many
desperate people shell out money to take courses from instructors who should be
taking TV writing courses themselves.

There’s another reason to take a TV writing course besides
learning the basics of the craft. If you’re the least bit likeable, you’ll make
a few friends among the other classmates. This is good, because you’ll have
other people you can show your work to. This is also good because somebody in
the class may sell his or her first script before you do… and suddenly you’ll
have a friend in the business. 

Many of my writer/producer friends today are writers I knew
back when I was in college, when we were all dreaming of breaking into TV some

A writer we hired on staff on the first season of Missing was in a Santa Monica screenwriters group… and was the
first member of her class to get a paying writing gig. Now her friends in the
class suddenly had a friend on a network TV show who could share her knowledge,
give them practical advice and even recommend them to her new agent and the
writer/producers she was working with.

Another route is to try and get a job as a writer/producer’s
assistant on an hour-long drama. Now only will you get a meager salary, but you
will see how a show works from the inside. You’ll read lots of scripts and
revisions and, simply by observation, get a graduate course in TV writing. More
important, you’ll establish relationships with the writers on the show and the
freelancers who come through the door. Many of today’s top TV producers were writer/producer
assistants once. All of the assistants I’ve had have gone on to become working
TV writers themselves… and not because I gave them a script assignment or
recommended them for one. I didn’t do either.

 The first step towards getting into pitch a TV producer for
an episodic writing assignment is to write an episodic teleplay on spec.

By that I mean, a pick a show and write an episode for it.

Although there are some producers who prefer to read screenplays, most showrunners, agents, and network executives want to read an episodic teleplay. Even if your spec feature script
has acceptable levels of dialogue, characterization, and structure, people thinking of hiring you will still wonder “yes, but can he handle my characters? Does he understand the four act structure?” An original piece can demonstrate that you have a strong voice, but it doesn’t show whether or not
you blend that voice with ours. Can you write what we need without losing whatever it is that makes you unique? That’s why we need to see your talents applied to a TV episode. To someone else’s characters. To someone else’s voice.

How do you pick a show to spec? Easy. Pick a show you like. Odds are, if you’re thinking about trying to become a TV writer, you already know what show you want to spec — you just don’t know you know. It’s the one you watch every week, and when it’s over, you find yourself thinking: That was pretty good, but wouldn’t it be cool if —"
Don’t worry about what’s hot and what’s not – choose a show you feel a connection to, one that you “get.” With some exceptions: 

a) Try
to stay away from syndicated or basic cable science fiction shows like Andromeda or Stargate. Or even a basic cable drama shows like Strong Medicine or even my show, Missing Not because they aren’t good shows, but because most showrunners and network executives don’t watch them. They wouldn’t know whether a Farscape or Wild Card spec was any good because they’ve never seen the shows.

b) Also
try to stay away from first-year shows, unless they are big hits. Otherwise, by
the time you finish your spec, the show could be cancelled already…and your
script will be useless. No one is going to read a spec for a show that was
cancelled after 13 episodes…or 22.

Many writers feel compelled to write a Sopranos or The Shield simply because they’re  “hot” shows. That’s great if you have some kind of feel for the shows — but if you don’t, you’re not going to write a good Sopranos no matter how fine a writer you are.

What shows do you look forward to? Which world would you like to live in? Which characters would be happiest living in your brain for a few weeks? That’s the show to write.

What you’re going to be writing is a typical episode. It’s not your job to write the show you think it
should be; it’s your job to write the best possible version of the show that is. You need to prove that you can mimic the style and feeling of a show while still letting your unique voice and
vision shine through

Let me underscore this again. You want to write a typical episode. You don’t want to write a
“mythology” episode that delves into the deep backstory at the heart of the series. If it’s a show that derives much of its conflict from the sexual tension between two characters, you don’t write the episode where they sleep together. If it’s a show about people lost in space or on an island, don’t
write the episode where they find their way home or get rescued. If it’s a show about a fugitive on the run for a crime he didn’t commit, don’t write the episode where he proves his innocence. (And don’t ever, ever, ever write a spec “cross-over” with characters from another series, movie, book, or animated

What you’re trying to prove with your spec is:

  1. You’re not illiterate. You know how to write.
  2. You know how to write a script in the proper format.
  3. You know how to structure a scene.
  4. You know how to structure an act.
  5. You know how to tell a story.
  6. You understand the four act structure.
  7. You can craft a story that serves the franchise of the show (ie a story that could only be told within the conceptual framework of that particular series)
  8. You can capture the voices of the characters.
  9. You can capture the story-telling style of the show.

What you aren’t trying to prove is how clever you are, or how much better you’d be writing the show than the people who are already  writing it.  Your goal is to write an entertaining, tight, typical episode of the show that illustrates your professional skills…not your
amazing style and unique voice. While TV producers are interested in your voice, what they really want to hear is how well you capture their voice. Your job as a TV writer to is channel the showrunner’s vision, not your own. 

And as soon as you finish writing that terrific spec, start on another for a different series, preferably
one that’s the opposite of what you’ve just written (ie a procedural and a melodrama). Because the first thing a TV producer will ask after reading your spec is…

Does he have another spec I can read?

22 thoughts on “How do I become a television writer if I don’t have any contacts?”

  1. Yeah me either. I guess if the agents think it’s salable then you’ll know it after submitting. So far no answer is the only answer I’ve gotten from any LA agent for film.

  2. If you found this post useful, you might want to check out the book it was drawn from, Successful Televison Writing, by Lee Goldberg and Some Other Guy Whose Name I Can’t Remember. Available through Amazon and many fine bookstores. Actually, all fine bookstores, since the fineness of a bookstore should be solely defined by their willingness to stock this book…

  3. by Lee Goldberg and Some Other Guy Whose Name I Can’t Remember.
    That would be Biff Biffington.
    Actually, it’s none other than Bill Rabkin and our book is also available as e-book as well. Click the link in the column on the right and it will take you to the listing on Amazon.

  4. It may help to remember that in films, they buy scripts; whereas, in TV, they hire writers. So, in a way, it could be said that feature specs are “easier to peddle than TV”.
    First, it’s rare for anyone to buy a TV spec. As noted above, you write a TV spec to demonstrate your ability–to peddle yourself–you don’t write a TV spec with the intention of selling it–i.e. you’re not trying to peddle the script.
    Second, because there’s so much collaboration done in the Writer’s Room on a TV series, when they consider hiring someone, there’s an additional factor of whether they want to spend eight, ten, twelve hours a day in a room with this person. This wouldn’t be the case if all they were going to do was buy your feature film script and send you on your merry way.
    That said, I believe the WGA mandates that showrunners hear a certain number of pitches from freelance writers every season. (Although “freelance” doesn’t necessarily mean “writer who has not yet broken in”. And I’m pretty sure it’s only required that they hear a certain minimum number of pitches from freelancers, they don’t actually have to hire them to write.) And there may be more fellowships for TV writers than there are for feature film writers. Although I can’t say that for sure, either.
    HTH – Mark
    P.S. Lee and/or Bill, given your great advice on opening credit sequences, I’m curious as to what your thoughts are on shows like Threshold and Reunion (and Stargate SG-1) which essentially don’t have opening credit sequences?

  5. Only six times, getting better. Well maestro you’ve thought this through, but yes I have two particular stories to sell, so buying them is a key factor, not just a writing sample. I don’t want to work on a TV show, been there, done that albeit in a different capacity. I have scripts to sell. That’s the gig. The books are a separate matter equally difficult.

  6. Many writers feel compelled to write a Sopranos or The Shield simply because they’re “hot” shows. That’s great if you have some kind of feel for the shows — but if you don’t, you’re not going to write a good Sopranos no matter how fine a writer you are.
    Best spec advice I’ve seen anywhere.

  7. I can’t believe I found a useful article within the top 10 results at Google–and you’re not charging me to read this, or asking for my personal info for a mailing list. I must’ve fallen into an Internet black hole that has sucked me back to 1997 before search engines turned evil. THANK YOU for the helpful information!

  8. Hi Lee – just wondering is age discrimination as big a factor as they say? I’m wrapping up Second City classes in Chicago now and am pulling together my spec scripts but I’ll be 30 when I get out to LA, although I do look really young. Thanks,Matt

  9. Thanks for the info! I’m attempting to search for something to get started… I just got out of college… I want to write. If you have any entry level tips– please do get back to me. Thanks!

  10. This is a great post, with great information. I’m 23 and have worked as a production assistant in the past – for news and news-like tv shows. However, I left the industry in 2006 and ventured into freelance copywriting because I felt my need to create was too strong.
    I’m just wondering – am I too old to start again?

  11. I love your book guys. I’m 17 and am really interested in becoming a tv writer but I live in Ooklahoma… Would my best bet be to practice my writing for a few years while in college and then transfer to UCLA (just got accepted!) and finish my degree while trying to get into the industry (just in case the whole tv thing doesn’t work out?)

  12. hmm, and then send it where? I’ve been sending specs and scripts out for two years and all I get back from agencies is; do you have other material or we loved it, but we’re not taking on writres at this time.
    its so frustrating, the catch 22 of it all. you need rep, but rep doesn’t acknowledge you.

  13. I’m confused. What if I want to work on a science fiction show and I want to send my spec to executives that produces science fiction shows. am I still not suppose to write a spec for that science fiction show then?


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