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09/19/2007: Room Rites and Rewrites
This is a continuation of the reply to Lauren in Michigan who asked about the daily life of a TV writer.
A typical day when you're working on a show varies from show to show. Almost all shows maintain some kind of writers' room, although the amount of time spent there is wildly variable. The room might feature a large central conference table and desk chairs, or it might be filled with comfy armchairs and couches. There is a whiteboard or a corkboard-and-cards arrangement, or both.
This is where the entire staff works together to come up with the storylines for each episode. A typical day often involves sitting in the room helping develop the stories. As a new staff writer, you wouldn't be expected to dominate the room, in fact, it would be a mistake to try. You spend a lot of time listening in a writers' room. By the time a story is sent off to be given a detailed outline, the staff has worked out the general content of each scene through collaborative discussion -- this is "breaking the story". If it's a comedy, especially a multi-cam, traditional sitcom-type comedy, you spend even more time in the writers' room doing group rewrites of the current script. This involves the higher-stress activity of pitching jokes: coming up with jokes for the script and calling them out to the group. You probably already have an instinct about whether that sounds like fun or torture for you.
Some dramas don't have a room, instead requiring each writer to work one-on-one with the show runner to develop their episode. As a writer you simply fold yourself into the method that your show runner prefers.
If there is a room, sometimes you won't be there, because you'll be "out on script." Some shows like you to still come to the studio every day and write in your office, while others let you disappear for the one or two weeks you have to write the episode. Sleep in, go to Vegas, whatever, just turn in a great first draft when it's due. Being out on script is great.
As you become a more experienced writer, other duties might come up to add variety to your days. You might be expected to go to set and watch your episode being filmed. You might be expected to go work with an editor. But no one would expect you to come in as a new writer with a full set of producing and editing skills. Some shows never require you to do much of this kind of activity anyway. To a large extent, writing scripts and breaking story IS the job.
I've left Lauren's most interesting question for last. She wants to know what the hardest part of the job is. There are a number of potential answers to that:
-- The hours. Some shows, especially but not limited to multi-camera comedies, require very long hours and/or coming in on the weekends. But you're young.
-- The humanity. If working with the same people, hearing the same voices, accommodating the same personalities for long stretches of time under stress and in a limited environment sounds like hell, then you may not enjoy the room. But you do get to go out on script now and then.
-- The ego-crush. You will get notes. You will be rewritten. You may have your suggestions derided publicly. But you do get to see your name on television.
-- The business. It's hard to get that first job, and for a while it may be hard to get that next job. It can take time and luck to get traction in this career. There aren't a lot of jobs and they're highly sought-after. But you're good, right? I see new people getting in every single year. There's no reason it can't be you.
I hope that answers your questions, Lauren! Hope this helps!
Lunch: that heirloom tomato salad again