How to Break into the Writers' Room—Support Staff Edition

Behind the scenes of 'The Morning Show'Credit: Apple TV+
First question—are you related to Dick Wolf? Because that is really going to be the easiest solution here.

You’re not? Heavy sigh. Fine. Here’s how you can otherwise do it. 

The writers' room support staff

The most direct and often most fruitful way of not only getting into a writers' room, but also of becoming a professional writer yourself, is by being part of the support staff.

The writers' room support staff generally consists of three assistant positions and the script coordinator. You have the writers' assistant, the showrunner (and/or executive producer's assistant), and the writers' PA. We’ll get to the script coordinator in a bit. But let’s break down what these roles are, what they are not, and how to actually get them!

(A quick note to say that these descriptions and rules are specifically about in-person writers' rooms, which are making a comeback. Zoom rooms are similar, but often have shorter hours and may not need a writers' PA since there are no communal lunch orders or office supplies, etc.)

Credit: Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images

The writers' assistant

The famed writers' assistant position gets the most attention because it is often the clearest route to becoming a TV writer. The writers' assistant is in the room with the writers, sometimes at the table, sometimes off to the side, but the great benefit of being a writers' assistant is that you are, to accurately quote Aaron Burr, “in the room where it happens.”

You get to watch the show be created from the inside, while absorbing the subtle politics and personalities in the room. You have the chance to learn skills that someone who hasn’t been a writers' assistant may not have such as knowing when to talk, how to best contribute, and sometimes knowing when not to talk. That all may sound like minutia, but it can be the difference when being asked back for the next season. 

The relative glamour of the writers' assistant position depends greatly on the particular show, even as the general duties remain the same. In theory, you are the keeper of the flame. You are in charge of keeping all the characters, lore, and stories straight. You will likely know the overall show better than most of the writers, since you have a bird’s-eye-view of the material. In practice, that also means that you’re a stenographer. Your job is to faithfully type up every good (and bad) idea that comes out of the writers' mouths and to organize it so that it feels linear and coherent.

So, if a writer cannot remember the exact line that they pitched for a character you can pull up that day and reference and find it for them. It’s a job that requires fast typing skills, a good memory, and a lot of focus, but it is also the best way to learn the nitty gritty of the writers' room. 

One downside is that it becomes hard to work on your own material. When you’ve spent hours processing other people’s ideas, it becomes more difficult to process your own after. And it is important to work on your own material. Because part of the way you can make that leap to full-fledged writer is to politely ask other writers to read your work toward the season’s end. 

'The Writers’ Room'Credit: Sundance Channel

The showrunner's assistant

The showrunner’s assistant is a different beast from writers' assistant. There is also sometimes an executive producer’s assistant position as well. Upper-level writers may either pay for their own assistant or they may have a studio deal that pays for an assistant, so you could have multiple assistants that are doing similar jobs here. But, for now, we’ll just discuss the showrunner’s assistant.

Like the name says, you’re assisting the showrunner. That was easy. Phew. Done. Lunch?

A showrunner’s assistant is more akin to a traditional Hollywood assistant role. You are answering phones, handling their schedules, and coordinating travel. While you are not usually in the writers' room, it is an incredible opportunity to learn about the actual job of showrunning itself. You are going to be on notes calls and in budgetary meetings and, depending on the shooting schedule, you may even accompany the showrunner to set. (And set is where they have the catering, so like, do that.)

But the biggest benefit is likely going to be your relationship with the showrunner themselves. They may be looking for new material to produce and you may have the perfect script, or they may just want to be a mentor and read your work. Or, as is often the case, they may be a reference when you’re up for another writing job. The writers' assistant is often the first to be promoted to staff writer in the event of a subsequent season, but the showrunner’s assistant is right there, too. And if you do a thorough, conscientious job, the boss will often want to return the favor and make sure you get on staff or at least get to co-write an episode. 

The downside to all of this is that you are in a traditional Hollywood assistant role. So, if the showrunner’s kid needs medicine or their dog has a dental cleaning or any number of personal errands come up, that may be on you too. Ideally, they will understand work/life balance and won’t bother you on evenings or weekends, but… that’s not guaranteed.

One thing to know is that when you interview for positions like this, you are feeling them out too. It’s a two-way street. If the showrunner is a notorious screamer who’s in the midst of a divorce and wants to always work until 3 a.m.—perhaps it’s better to pass on that “opportunity.” Life’s too short. 

The writers' production assistant

Writers' PA. I am of the opinion that the writers' PA is an underrated position. It’s also a position that all but disappeared during the pandemic with Zoom rooms. But now that writers' rooms are moving back into being in person, the writers' PA is coming back too. 

But what does a writers' PA do? Well, the positive spin is that you are the master of the writers' room and offices. You are in charge of the food, the drink, the office supplies, and even the office furniture, and are generally tasked with making sure all the writers are well fed and have whatever they need while they’re at work.

The less positive spin is that you’re the gopher. You gopher this and you gopher that. But I think that undersells the benefits of the position. 

Oftentimes a writers' PA will not be allowed in the writers' room itself. Sometimes you are. Sometimes they need someone to write on the board, or your showrunner is awesome and just wants you to be able to watch and learn. Other times the writers' assistant may be out sick or writing their own episode and you can step in.

However, your main responsibilities are going to be getting the room ready in the morning, getting snacks, and getting lunch (and maybe dinner if there’s a late night). While unglamorous, these are important duties. Make sure everyone’s lunch orders are right. I know it’s annoying when that one writer refuses to eat anything that’s touched onions and you couldn’t know that the restaurant put onions on their sandwich and now you’re supposed to drive 30 minutes round trip to get another one…?!

But, yeah. Suck it up. It’s the main part of your job. Do it. Because here’s the secret—your real job is to make the writers like you. So, cater to them (literally and figuratively). 

It is one of the simplest transactions in a town where there are no simple transactions. A writer wants a particular food or drink, and you get it for them. They are happy. They like you. Bada bing, bada boom. Beautiful. Direct. Simple. It’s easy to feel like it’s all beneath you because you’re an artist, and blah blah blah, but if you get the particular RxBar they like or their particular brand of coffee, they will tend to like you. And that means they may be willing to read you. Or be willing to answer your emails later when you need a recommendation or when you think your new script would be a perfect fit for their manager.

Now, don’t forget to be a human about it all. Don’t be so nakedly transactional. Be kind because being kind is much better than the alternative and enjoy the fact that you’re able to make someone else’s day better. But, also feel secure in the knowledge that your expensive degree isn’t going to waste because all your menial labor has a purpose. 

You are not better than the job. You are doing the job in pursuit of something better. 

But, with all that out of the way, the best thing about being a writers' PA is time. It won’t be true every day, but after you get lunch and clean up and the writers are back to work… there may be one to three hours where you can write. You have time and space. And you’re around creativity. You’re watching amazing professionals do what you love at an incredibly high level, providing you inspiration, and then, after a delicious meal paid for by the studio, you’re left to your own devices for a few hours.

You can crack open that script or outline and write, write, write. And if you get to do that a few days a week for 20 weeks? Or 30? Or 40? Think how much you can accomplish. Yes, you will be making sure that the cream in that writer’s coffee is only fair-trade oat milk, but you’ll also be getting paid to do the work you love with access to professionals. I think the trade-off is more than worth it.

Script coordinator (not supervisor!)

And now we come to one of the most misunderstood jobs in all of Hollywood (well, other than best boy), that of the script coordinator. The script coordinator is not to be confused with the script supervisor.

The script supervisor is an on-set-only position that sits next to the director and is in charge of, among other things, ensuring continuity between takes and marking which takes are the director’s favorite in order to help the editors.

The script coordinator is a position that straddles the world of the writers' room and of production.

The script coordinator takes every script the writers churn out and gets them prepared for production. They are the last line of defense between the writers and showrunner and the various departments.

So, if a writer accidentally writes a location as “No Film School Offices” but then later calls it the “No Film School Loft,” it’s the script coordinator’s job to flag that and make sure it’s only called one name, otherwise the locations manager and production designer may think they need to create both an office and a loft—and No Film School does not have that kind of budget! 

The great thing about this job is that you get to read every script in detail. You get to see how each writer crafts a scene and learn how that writing turns into a producible episode of TV. Do this job for a while and you’ll have an implicit understanding of how a scene is budgeted and what is and isn’t feasible to actually shoot.

It’s also a fairly flexible job in that, like a writers' PA, you will often have a lot of downtime. That can be a lot of time to work on your own material, or scrolling Twitter or reading your favorite loft-based film website.

The flip side of this is that you are expected to proofread, correct, and forward any script you’re sent to production ASAP once it’s ready. And that may be at 11 p.m. or, if the production is in Europe, at 3 a.m. It is rarely a 9-5 job. 

But this is why the script coordinator is an odd support staff job. Because they are liaising with production so often, it is not viewed as much of a “writers' room” gig. This varies, but many times the script coordinator is viewed by writers as more of a production job and less of a creative one. I’d argue that this is an unfair distinction, but it persists.

As such, it tends to be more difficult for the script coordinator to advance and create bonds with writers in the room. For the right person, it can be a great job, and there are absolutely stories of script coordinators making the leap to staff writer, but it’s a less direct path.

The other issue with the job is that it can be a thankless one. If you do your job perfectly, you never miss a typo, you never get the name of a location or a character wrong, you are not noticed. Usually, the only time people truly notice the script coordinator is when there’s a mistake that needs correcting. It is simply more difficult to stand out in a positive way in this role. 

How to actually get the damn job

If you’ve read this far, congratulations! Also, please go outside for a few minutes. The big question now is… how do you even get these jobs to begin with? The short answer is “relationships."

The longer answer is, “It’s complicated.”

Most of these positions will not be posted on a job board or even the UTA job list. They are filled through friends or friends of friends. So make friends. One of the more direct ways to hear about jobs like this is by working at a management company or talent agency. Being an agency assistant can be tough, but the benefit is that you meet tons of different people and are at a true nexus of information. If your boss represents a showrunner whose show is going to series, well… that’s your in.

Or maybe someone else’s boss represents someone in that new writers' room, and you can ask for a favor. There are also organizations like JHRTS which specialize in bringing assistants together. 

Simply living and working in Los Angeles (or New York) is another way to create these connections. Work begets work, and even if you get a small, short gig on a project you may meet someone who eventually hears about a writers' assistant gig opening up.

Temp jobs in the entertainment industry are another excellent way in. Working for a few weeks at a larger company can give you the chance to make at least a friend or two, and if you can keep in touch with them, you have access to vastly more information than before. The truth is that luck and timing are also big factors in getting the right job. But the longer you stay in the game, the better your chances. (This is not an endorsement of gambling.)

But let’s say that you simply are not able to move to a major industry hub right now. That’s okay too. Keep writing. Keep working on your craft. There are plenty of other ways in, both directly through your writing and indirectly. You may win a contest and get representation and, short of direct staffing, you can also ask your reps about support staff positions. Or you can create relationships online with folks who may be in a position to help.

But the most important thing is that it’s about real relationships. Creating superficial “friendships” with people because you hope to use them later is not going to pay off how you hope. Spend time with the people you actually like and enjoy. It’s those friends who will help get you jobs later because you’re actually friends.

Then, once you’re successful, it’s your job to pay it back or pay it forward. So, if you can find a way to become genuine friends with Dick Wolf, that’s another great option too.       

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