If you want to be a TV writer, everyone says you should start as a writers’ assistant. And they’re right. It’s the most linear way to break into the room and gives you undeniable experience learning things you can't pick up from simply writing words on a page -- like pitching ideas, production processes, and how to work as a team. But the world of the writers’ room is its own bubble, and if you don’t find a way in early on, it’s that much harder to break in. Sometimes it feels like it’s even harder to make it as a WA than a writer! And it can be -- there are fewer assistants per show than staff positions, and many people work on more than one show a year.
But don’t despair: If you haven’t been hired as a writers’ assistant, you don’t need to move back home and become an accountant like your parents always hoped. You just need to find another way in. There are many avenues into the room, and what follows are simply suggestions. The caveat to these is: Whatever you do, don’t forget about paying your dues. You’ll need the humility, industry knowledge, and networking contacts for any of these practices to work.
Write something else. If you love writing, you love writing, regardless of whether your work ends up on TV or the big screen or in print. Try establishing yourself as a writer outside of TV. You may find another medium deeply satisfying or achieve enough success that you get summoned back to TV. Your best bet is to shop a feature spec or join a sketch writing team at UCB, since that will get you noticed inside the industry. Another option is to write freelance articles or publish that novel you’ve been writing since college. Focus on building your writing career. If life leads you back to TV, great. If not, at least you’re writing something else you’re passionate about.
Get a job in another side of the industry that interests you. If you love storytelling, you may find joy (and money!) in story producing reality TV or in scripted development. This kind of job can satisfy your creative urges while keeping you in the industry and relevant to your contacts. At a smaller production or management company, employees can even sell their own scripts internally (not often, but it has happened). The key is: If you don’t love the work you’re doing in this creative “day job,” and you’re not finding the time or mental energy to write when you're off work, pick a new path. Some people find a non-creative industry job is the best way to maintain contacts and creative energy. You’ll need to work extra hard to make the jump from one end of the industry into the room, so whatever job you take, make sure you can leave work at work and focus on your own scripts at home.
Make your own content. If you’re also an actor or director or have enough contacts who are, make your own stuff. Write a short or a web series, and start a Kickstarter campaign. You’ll need to dedicate a lot of time to sharing it on social media and drumming up as much attention as you can, but with the rise of digital series, becoming a creator in that space can bring about a TV gig -- or a gig in the new landscape. Sure, there’s a lot of indie web content that doesn’t really find an audience, but if you make something great and focus on promoting it -- for emphasis, let’s highlight that an audience isn’t going to magically find it, you need to promote it wisely -- you may get recognition.
Enter fellowships. The diversity fellowships are a real long shot, but if you can get one and make the most of your time there, it’s a great ticket in. Don’t put all your eggs in this basket -- you’re better off betting your life savings on one roulette number -- but if there’s a show you love that meets the spec criteria, write it!
All of these are as much of a stretch as getting that WA job, and we highly recommend trying for a WA job for a few years if you can. But if that’s not your path, you don’t have to give up hope just yet. Sure, the industry is competitive, but if you’re committed and talented, you’ll find a way to break in.
--Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan