Y. Shireen Razack on talking in the writers’ room.
Ask a Mentor : To Staff or Not to Staff
WGAW member Terri Kopp on staffing first vs. selling first.
Should a new staff member in an established writers’ room worry about talking too much, or too little? WGAW member and veteran TV writer-producer Y. Shireen Razack (New Amsterdam, Shadowhunters) has some words of advice.
Question: “As a new staff writer on a show's second season, is it worse to talk too much or too little?”
Y. Shireen Razack: There’s not a short answer to this question. Definitely don’t talk too much. Quite honestly, talking too much for anyone, regardless of title (showrunner excepted), is neither appropriate nor respectful to your fellow writers. On the other end of the spectrum (i.e. not speaking much)…this depends on the room. A general rule of thumb for a new writer, especially a new staff writer in an already established room, is to take the first week (maybe two) to observe the room dynamics. Don’t not speak during that first week or two, but speak a little less as you assess what type of room it is. Is it hierarchical? Or no titles in the room? Or does it depend on who’s running the room?
In a hierarchical room, the upper levels are afforded more latitude to speak and are usually expected to speak first whenever there is a question or challenge posed. In these rooms, lower-level writers are expected to speak less or not at all. Frustrating for sure, but in these types of rooms, speaking less means you get to stay for next season.
In a “no titles in the room” situation, everyone has (or should have) an equal voice. Anyone can jump in when they have something to pitch. The trick in this kind of room is finding your moment to jump in. But remember, even if the showrunner says there are no titles in the room, there still are to a certain extent.
Regardless of the type of room, figure out who is the #2; most of the time, this is obvious, but not always (the #2 is the person who runs the room when the showrunner is not there). Always defer to the showrunner and #2; they make the final decisions on what goes up on the board so the room can move forward. And when the room moves forward, move with it. What happens if you think the room is going in the wrong direction? Trust me, the room will eventually figure that out and come back around to where you can pitch your alternate idea that saves the day.
Pitch with confidence. Defend your pitches. But again, a general rule of thumb is: don’t re-pitch an idea more than twice. More detrimental than speaking too much or too little is being the person who holds the room hostage to try to steamroll their idea onto the board. That is the best way to become the least liked person in the room, and oftentimes can lead to you not getting asked back for the next season.
One caveat to not re-pitching more than twice is if you are trying to save the show from telling a biased, prejudicial story that could lead to repercussions down the road. Again, you can only push so hard. If the showrunner insists on telling that story, back down. Then, try to find an upper-level ally to pull aside later to express why the story is problematic. True talk: only do this if you are certain that person is an ally. There have been instances when lower-level writers, in particular, have approached the wrong person and were subsequently reprimanded and/or fired for expressing their opinion.
Being the new person on an established staff is never easy. Being the new person and the lowest-ranked person is even harder. Just remember, if you’re on a supportive staff, your fellow writers will give you the time you need to settle in and get a feel for things. If you find yourself on a less-supportive staff, find allies in the room and develop coping techniques to weather the initial storm; it will get better once you have your footing. If you are an underrepresented writer, know that you can find additional support, should you need it, through the following Inclusion and Equity committees:
Send us your questionsSend your questions about the craft, job hunting, your career, or Guild service (under 100 words, please) with the subject “Mentor,” and we’ll send them to an established screen or TV writer to answer. Questions might be edited for space or clarity and will be published anonymously. WGAW mentors provide informal career advice and are not expected to read scripts, give notes, hear pitches, or help find representation or work.
(This article originally appeared in the July 10, 2020 issue of the WGAW Connect newsletter)