Writers’ rooms have evolved over the years.
Some creators write every episode themselves and only have research assistants. Others have a room of just a handful as seasons become shorter and shorter. Still others can have over 20 people in the room (though as budgets shrink, so does the size of a writers’ room).
The system of the writers’ room has existed and evolved over decades, creating a hierarchy of writing credits that help prepare writers as they work their way up to be able to create run their own writers’ room one day. Knowing the positions doesn’t just help you know how you can be of service, it can also let you know who to go to for certain issues.
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Executive Producers: Showrunner vs. Head Writer
Executive producers run the show, but that doesn’t mean they created it. In recent years, the showrunner has been the top spot of television, but that was not always the case, and it may be slowly evolving again. In fact, “showrunner” isn’t a WGA credit, but simply the title used to say who is running the show. But not all executive producers are showrunners.
The showrunner oversees every aspect of a television show, from hiring the writers’ room to cast to episode development and through the moment it lands on your television (or smart device). If you’re looking for more information about the many roles that a showrunner handles, be sure to check out this fantastic documentary and companion book, which features some of the best-known showrunners in the industry.
Before the title of showrunner existed, the person in charge was often the head writer, though sometimes that role was shared amongst a couple of executive producers. Today, the head writer, creator, and showrunner are often the same. However, recently, Kevin Feige at Marvel has started a new evolution of not using showrunners, but instead, hiring dynamic directors and strong head writers who work together to tell a cohesive story. While there is some debate about whether or not this is a good thing, it could be something that we see more and more in the industry, especially with major franchises and IPs.
Upper-Levels: Co-EPs and Supervising Producers
Just below the people running the show are writers with a few years of experience already under their belt. Sometimes, people in these positions will even have run their own show before. Co-executive producers are just under the top level. They can help with many duties involved in production when the showrunner can’t be there or along with the showrunner (or executive producer) as another perspective, such as casting, sitting in on post-production, and editing drafts in the writers’ room to make sure that the vision is cohesive between episodes on the page.
Below that are the supervising producers, who can help run the writers’ room when their superiors are wearing the countless hats they do.
Mid-Levels: Story Editors, Story Consultants, and Producers
With every year that you work your way up in writers’ rooms, you assume more responsibilities. While a staff writer can focus on the writing, the above roles will see their responsibilities grow so that they’re ready to run a show once they’ve been in the upper levels for a few years.
Mid-Level writing credits include story editor, executive story editor, executive script consultant, co-producer, and producer. Starting with the story editor and working your way up to producer correlates to the number of years you’ve worked in a writers’ room. Additional assignments may include being on set (or traveling to set if your writers’ room is in a different place than the production) or assisting with other production areas like casting and wardrobe, especially if it’s an episode you were a primary writer on. The more years you’ve worked, and the higher your title also means your salary rate goes up.
Entry-Levels: Staff Writer
With or without working in an administrative role, the “first” role in a writers’ room is technically a staff writer. You’re there from the moment the room forms for development, pitching ideas, punching up scripts, and rewrites. You usually will get to write a script, but not always depending on the size of the room, the number of episodes in a season, and the showrunner or head writer’s writing style (there are rare head writers whose names end up on every delivered script). Your job is to observe as much as you speak up. They hired you for a reason, so give your ideas and treat everyone else’s ideas with the same respect you would want your own ideas to be treated.
Administrative: Room Assistants and PAs
If you’re looking to establish yourself in the industry, these are likely the roles you’re seeking, though they’re very hard to come by.
Writers’ assistants sit in the room and take copious notes about everything that is said, from ideas to jokes to script changes to non-writing tasks assigned to writers, and more. The goal is to work on a show that continues for multiple seasons, and while you learn and build relationships, there may be an opportunity to write on an episode. Often, writers’ rooms seek assistants that have done the job before, making it difficult to break into these positions. There are occasional postings, but it’s all about who you know, much like the rest of the industry. This is why the WGA and a trio of well-known showrunners established a program to help break diverse writers into these roles without prior experience by giving them high-quality training.
A step below the writers’ assistant is the writers’ production assistant (PA). Much like the PAs in other areas of the industry, this role can feel a bit like a “gopher.” They run errands, pick up lunch and coffees, make copies, and back up the writers’ assistant. Unlike writers’ assistants, PAs do not spend the bulk of their time in the writers’ room with their work. This is a great spot to begin if you’re looking to work your way up to a writers’ room position.
Another role in this area is the showrunner’s assistant. This position is more administrative than a writers’ PA, and they may spend a good amount of their time in the writers’ room, but it depends mostly on the showrunner they work under. Since the role of a showrunner is more than writing, their assistant must help with the logistics of more than just the writers’ room. This position can lead to a staff writer position, but more likely, it can lead to a development role or the writers’ assistant role.
Script coordinators are often also included in this area of a writers’ room. They’re in charge of organizing and distributing new drafts of a script and acting as a liaison across production on the latest draft, as well as making annotations for ease of use for production. It’s a role that requires a great deal of organization and, though it creates access to a writers’ room, it doesn’t necessarily lead to a clear jump into a staff writing role because this job is more involved with the production. But that doesn’t mean it’s not impossible. It’s just not as clear a line as a writers’ PA or writers’ assistant.
If you’re just starting, you may be looking for one of these roles. However, don’t beat yourself up if you can’t find one. The most important thing is that you write, establish connections, and get your name out there. This could lead to an assistant gig or even a staff writing gig if you use your resources.