Everyone’s first day as a Staff Writer is going to be different.
I remember picking out my outfit the night before and fussing over whether I should bring a snack or not. It was like the first day of school. Exciting! And a little anxiety-inducing. When I pulled into the parking lot the next morning, I saw someone across the lot with a badass sparkly black sweatshirt on and waved ‘hi.’ We quickly introduced ourselves, found out we were both first-time Staff Writers, and walked into the office together, feeling a little less nervous than a moment before.
On your first day, you’ll probably have that same kind of encounter with your new coworkers. And it’s easy to feel a little insecure about sitting in a room (or on a Zoom) with writers with higher levels or more years of experience. But take comfort: every writer in the room was new to this once, and the dynamic of a good writers’ room is not to penalize inexperience but encourage growth in early-career writers. You’ll soon find your rhythm in the collaborative dance of perspectives, personalities, and experience levels.
Welcome to the Room
Practically speaking, you’ll walk into the building that first day and find your personal/shared office before you join the conference room where you’ll work as a group. You’ll meet the Writer’s PA, a helpful person to know and the one who’ll be responsible for getting lunch for the room. Forgot your mid-day snacks? Odds are that you’ll find a host of snacks, drinks, and more in the writers’ kitchen at the office…And also often spread in the middle of the conference table for easy reach. Someone rightly decided that quick access to calories and caffeine benefits the creative process! (A quick aside: in the Covid-era, most rooms are virtual and therefore the writers’ kitchen is… you guessed it: your own kitchen. But many rooms offer lunch stipends.)
Okay, time to assemble in the writers’ room! Around the table or across the screen you’ll see your showrunner(s) — the leader of the team and, essentially, your boss; the other members of the writing staff, varying in levels of experience from Staff Writer to Co-EP; and the Script Supervisor and/or Writers’ Assistant, folks responsible for transcribing the ideas and pitches volleyed about in the room and doing vital script work as the drafts begin. There will surely be some casual chit-chat before the Showrunner will take the lead in welcoming everyone to work.
Intros on that first day can be extremely enlightening, as you begin to learn that the people you’ll be working with creatively day after day each have their own unique personalities. If you’re someone who got into TV writing from another form, say, playwriting or fiction writing, you’re probably used to spending a lot of your process alone. But in this environment, much of the creative labor is shared. You’re really only on your own when you go write your script, and as a Staff Writer, it is entirely possible that you won’t be assigned a script to write (or perhaps, not by yourself). In that case, the bulk of your contribution is to pitch ideas and help break story (or, come up with the plot and characters arcs of every episode of the season) in the writers’ room.
Pay Attention to the Culture
So, it’s not irrelevant to pay close attention to how your colleagues introduce themselves and behave on that first day. What’s the ‘culture’ of the room? Is it polite and professional, with the occasional good-natured chuckle? Or are people out-joking each other in the introductions? If you’re the new kid in class, especially in a case where everyone else stayed on from a prior season, you may find it helpful to say less and observe more.
Every room has a unique pace, value system, and style. Every showrunner leads differently– sometimes, it may feel similar to sitting in an upper-level college seminar with your SR as a TA or Professor outlining the big questions or story goals of the day. Other showrunners may prefer a more open-ended approach, directing the flow of ideas but listening more than speaking.
Foster Your Creativity
Don’t be afraid to jot notes down as you take in a wave of new information about your job. I always keep a notebook for each room. You’ll find people type their notes down, which obviously works well. But for kinetic learners and thinkers, a physical pen and paper can really do wonders in an active creative space.
Speaking of kinetic thinkers, keep a fidget toy nearby. Your brain will be stimulated in major ways as you and your colleagues break story together, and sometimes your desk and chair will feel like a prison cell. If you can, build in a walk or stretch during your breaks. A little movement can help keep you fresh and engaged all day.
By the end of Day 1, you’ll be wiped out. You will have learned so much, met so many people, and put yourself out there a handful of times.
Maybe you pitched an idea today and everyone loved it! That’s great! And maybe you pitched something that sort of fell flat! That’s great too! Maybe you didn’t pitch anything, but you offered some comments that seemed to help someone else pitch along. You’re amazing! Keep it up! Don’t think of your new job in terms of success and failure, but as an opportunity to learn. Never get too confident to grow, but know that you have everything it takes to succeed or you wouldn’t be where you are now. Now, get to work.