If you want to get a job writing for television, you can forget about polishing your resume, because that’s not going to help you. To get a job as a television writer, you’re going to have to prove one thing; that you can write for television. To prove that, you will need to write a couple of spec scripts.
A spec script is a sample episode of an existing television show. It isn’t written to be sold to that show, it is written to prove to producers that you have the skills and talent that would make you a good fit as a staff writer for their shows. They want to know that you can write within an existing show’s format and structure, reproduce a show’s tone, and write convincing dialogue for a show’s main characters. They also like to see that you can tell a good story; one that makes your spec script stand out from the rest.
Bill Lawrence— the co-creator of Spin City, creator of Scrubs, and co-creator of Cougar Town—explained that he was not aware of this when he was trying to get his first job writing for television:
“When I first got out to LA., I didn’t know anything about the process of getting staffed or what kinds of spec scripts to write. In fact, most people don’t. What you are really supposed to do is write an episode of one of your favorite shows, and it becomes a virtual resume for you.”
Most people who want to write for television have at least two spec scripts that their agents send out to producers who are looking for new writers to staff their shows (if you don’t have an agent, then your spec scripts can be used to help convince an agent to take you on as a client). Having at least two spec scripts is recommended because multiple scripts can demonstrate diversity in your writing skill, and make it more likely that you will have the type of script a particular show’s producers want to read.
Also, the more spec scripts you have, the less vulnerable you will be if one of your scripts becomes obsolete. Even Joss Whedon—creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and the upcoming Marvel television series S.H.E.I.L.D— who was a third generation screenwriter with a degree in film studies, needed more than one spec script to get his first job on a writing staff:
“The first spec script I wrote was for a TV show called Just in Time. The show got cancelled before I finished the script…Then I wrote a few more scripts…That spec was what got me hired as a staff writer on Roseanne.”
To avoid writing a spec script that becomes obsolete too quickly, you should pick shows that are well established and very likely to return next season; but also make sure that the shows haven’t been on the air so long that the producers are tired of seeing spec scripts from that show. Many producers advise using a second year show that everyone in Hollywood is watching and discussing. It needs to be a show that will be very familiar to the readers, because even if they agree to read a spec script on a show that they’re not very familiar with, they won’t have enough information to know whether or not you captured the show’s format, structure, tone, and characters.
If you have a particular show that you would love to work on, don’t write a spec script for that show thinking you can use it to get a job on their writing staff. There are legal concerns with writers sending spec scripts specific to a producer’s own show: They usually won’t read spec scripts for their show because they don’t want to be accused of stealing ideas. If there is a show you really want to work on, you should spec another show that is similar to it in format, tone, or style. But make sure that other show is one you really like and understand.
Once you have selected a show, now it is time to make sure that you understand the show at a deep enough level to write a convincing spec script. You can do this by watching as many episodes of the show as you can, reading the scripts of a few episodes (you can buy these online), and gathering background information about the show. Then, pick out three or four episodes of the show and watch them several times while taking notes on different elements of the show. The first viewing can be to increase your understanding of the show’s format and structure; a second viewing can be to focus on dialogue and the voice of the characters; and a third viewing can be done with the sound off, so that you can focus on the way the show looks. Keep watching until you feel that you have all the information you need to begin to write your spec script.
When you are writing your spec script, you should try to make it just like a real episode of the show. The fact that you are writing on a subject that the reader already knows is what makes the spec script so valuable in their effort to judge your writing skill. They know what you are trying to accomplish, and now they just need to see if you are successful. Therefore, you want to use the show’s main character and avoid bringing in outside characters for anything more than quick supporting roles. The readers want to see if you can write other people’s characters, not your own. Also, use the show’s existing sets so that they can imagine the characters in their usual settings. It is also important to write the spec so that it would be able to fit in anywhere within the show’s current season. And, above all else, make sure that your spec script doesn’t resolve the show’s central conflict.
The standards for spec scripts are very high. If you are lucky enough to have someone read your specs, you want it to be the best you are capable of writing. You should show your scripts to a few people— such as friends, family, or members of your writing group—to get feedback before sending it out. It is important that the specs be formatted like the show’s own scripts, and that there are no typos or formatting mistakes. Bill Lawrence explains why this is important:
“No one realizes that when I get someone’s script, it is usually one of fifty I received that week. Even though this may sound superficial, my advice is that it better look right. I mean it better not have misspellings and it better look exactly like the shooting draft does of that particular show.”
Once you have your two spec scripts written, it’s a good idea to keep writing new ones so that your writing samples stay up to date. Many writers continue to write spec scripts even after they get a job on the writing staff of a show. That way, when they need to make their next move, they will be ready with fresh material that demonstrates the new skills they have picked up while working on the show. And, if you are just getting started writing spec scripts, writing a lot of them will undoubtedly improve your writing skills and your speed—which will come in handy if you do get that job writing for television.
Created By…Inside the Minds of TV’s Top Show Creators, by Steven Priggé
Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box,