How To Become a Writer for a TV Show (With Steps and Salary)
Updated June 30, 2023
Television writers consistently develop new ideas for individual television episodes or create entirely new television shows. This high-demand job is ideal for someone who loves watching television and has a knack for inventing new plot lines or imagining an entire television series. Becoming a television writer results from a combined effort of education, patience and networking.
In this article, we put together a list of steps you can take to become a television writer, along with job outlook and salary expectations.
A TV writer creates story ideas for daily or weekly TV shows, such as serial dramas, documentaries and commercials, with consideration for character development, dialogue and plot lines.
You can learn more about how to write your own TV show ideas by studying the plot, dialogue, nonverbal communication and character development within your favorite TV shows, along with taking formal classes or reading relevant books.
An aspiring TV writer can find job opportunities by networking along with attending workshops, seminars and conferences within the television and film industry.
What is a television writer?
When a favorite television show makes you laugh, cry or think, credit a television writer. These professionals take story ideas and shape them into a weekly or daily television show. Television shows may run for a short period of time, or they may attract numerous viewers and run for decades.
Television writers come in many shapes and forms and generally write for a certain genre. These writers must be familiar with the characters and how they behave and interact with other characters. Television writers must be consistent and cohesive so that character development makes sense and reconciles with historic behavior and storyline.
Other roles identified with television writers are:
Read more: How to Become a Producer
What does a television writer do?
Television writers generally work in teams led by a head writer and are either part of the station's writing staff or work as independent writers. Writers may work as producers or serve in other capacities at television stations or production studios.
Television writers create plot lines, invent dialogue and develop characters for ongoing or limited series. They rewrite and polish scripts and often work on a wide range of projects writing episodic teleplays. They frequently spend time working on several projects at a time due to strict deadlines.
Television writers develop storylines for:
Daytime serial drama (soap opera)
Nighttime serial drama
Situation Comedy (sit-com)
Related: Your Guide to Jobs in Comedy Writing
How to become a television writer
There is more than one path to become a television writer. Here is a list of nine steps and strategies you can take to break into television writing:
1. Take classes and read books
Writing for television is different from stage or screen in that deadlines and length limitations dictate the writing process. Taking television writing courses can help aspiring television writers learn the basics while developing a network of industry professionals. Some television writers may pursue a degree, typically in screenwriting, film and television or media production.
Read books written by industry professionals for in-depth information about television writing, the industry and tips for success. Consider a wide range of classes and books that teach you the fundamentals of writing for television:
Film classes: Consider taking classes or reading books to better understand characters, plot, adaptation and the processes of translating the story from the page to the screen.
Theater classes: These classes can provide insight into the acting process and how actors work with scripts.
Television writing and production classes: These classes can give you inside knowledge into the industry and guide you in creating scripts. These classes may offer guidance and advice on how to advance your career as a television writer.
2. Watch your favorite television show for educational purposes
The next time you sit down to watch your favorite television show, keep a notebook handy and aim to take notes. Study the episode and make note of:
How dialogue facilitates communication.
The role of non-verbal communication.
How the plot moves forward.
How the writing contributes to character development.
3. Apply for an assistant position
Television stations hire writing or production assistants, jobs that can position you for a television writing career. Working for a local station presents opportunities to meet contacts you can add to your network and the assistant role establishes relationships to help move your television writer career forward. The role of assistant exposes you to the industry for a better understanding of how television stations and writers work. If you pursue an assistant position, find a mentor to provide insight and advice to promote and advance your career.
4. Keep networking
No matter where you are in your television writer career, keep networking. Market yourself as a television writer and update your resume to match your skills. Approach networking as a way to build your brand, so people get to know who you are, what you write and why you write it.
Building a network creates awareness and positions you for inside information on who to contact, or how to secure a writing job. Networking is a mutual relationship, be sure to share your knowledge and insight with others to nurture reciprocity. Find networking opportunities in:
Social media groups
Online portfolio services
5. Write spec and pilot scripts
Formally called a speculative screenplay, the spec script is a sample script written as a regular episode of a favorite television show. Pick a genre or television show you know well and write a teleplay. In some cases, you can obtain a sample script to get a feel for the writing style. Watch plenty of episodes and take notes so your teleplay sticks to the format, follows the storyline and stays true to the characters.
Television writers can showcase their abilities by writing a pilot script. A pilot is an entirely new show where the writer will create characters, conflicts and dialogue. Once you've finished the spec and pilot scripts, keep writing to hone your craft and strengthen the flexibility of your style and voice. Essentially, your scripts will prove you:
Have the ability to write
Know how to properly format a script
Understand how to structure a scene
Have the ability to understand four-act structure and tell a complete story
Can capture character voices
Can capture the story-telling style
Read more: Learn How To Write A Script
6. Proof, edit and refine
Once you've written scripts, you'll edit the first draft. Proofread and edit for grammar, context and continuity. Refine your scripts, so they meet the requirements while telling a compelling story.
Ask friends or family members to read your scripts and offer feedback. Take suggestions with emotional detachment and apply suggestions or advice where needed. If you know someone in the business, ask them to read your scripts for further guidance on its quality.
7. Write a query letter and shop your script
Once your scripts are ready, prepare a query letter. Most decision makers prefer a brief query letter that explains the premise of your idea and inspires hiring personnel to read your scripts. Look up key people, such as showrunners or producers, and submit your query directly to them. Remember to write your letter specifically for the station or television show and follow submission guidelines exactly, including those for query letters. Since requirements can vary, always check with individual stations or networks to find out how to submit your work.
8. Find an agent
Some television writers work with agents to find work. Writer's associations frequently provide names of agents along with their specific genre(s) and contact details. Working with an agent means you'll pay a commission, but the opportunities and contacts you make may be worth the extra expense.
9. Join online platforms
Television writers can join online platforms for additional networking and possibly gain access to services that showcase your work or promote you as a writer for television. Services might include online portfolios or similar ways to present samples of your work. Some organizations list writing contests you can enter while other platforms may offer open submissions or provide exposure for aspiring television writers.
Skills for television writers
Television writers possess certain skills that make them adept at managing schedules and meeting deadlines. Skills most often found in television writers are:
Powers of observation. Television writers have a keen awareness that makes them able to observe interactions and conversations and turn them into plot lines.
People skills. Television writers are fundamentally anthropologists who study, dissect and interpret human behaviors.
Imagination. Developing story lines and advancing the plot forward requires imagination. Writers may work on science fiction or fantasy shows that require developing new worlds, civilizations or languages.
Communication. Television writers work with producers, other writers, directors and actors and must effectively communicate ideas, script changes or plot deviations.
Salary and job outlook for television writers
According to the latest Indeed salary data, television writers can expect to make an average of $61,211 per year. Although the Bureau of Labor and Statistics doesn't list television writer occupations specifically, the job outlook for writers and authors expects to decline by 2% between 2019 and 2029, primarily for print media. However, the future is brighter for those who write for entertainment or online media as the focus shifts from page to screen.
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