WGAW member and veteran TV writer-producer Jordana Arkin (Fuller House, Raven’s Home) has some clarification on the often-ambiguous role of a staff writer.
Question: As a staff writer, what is my job? Am I just there to learn? I'm just happy to be here, but how should I contribute?
Jordana Arkin: I love this question because it always seems like one of those big secrets that every writer wants an answer to before starting their first staff job. "What is expected of me?" At the beginning of your career, the Writers’ Room seems like the great workplace mystery and the reward for solving the case is not getting fired. I remember being that staff writer wondering what to do, and over the years, I've watched staff writers desperately struggling to figure it out. I watched bold writers talking a lot trying to fit in, while more timid ones stayed completely silent, assuming it's the safer move.
The problem is, there are showrunners who get annoyed when staff writers speak up and others who welcome it; showrunners who expect staff writers to actively participate and ones who don't want to hear a word from them unless it's a brilliant contribution. Sounds intimidating, I know. Perhaps I can make it a little less scary by reframing the question: "What does my showrunner expect from me?" That's all that really matters.
Even if you focus on pleasing your showrunner and being an asset to the series, you can't control if you’ll get picked up for Season 2. But by working hard, chances are good that you’re making a positive impression on the rest of the staff, the studio, and the network.
Since every writers’ room is unique, with its own unspoken rules and dynamics, part of your job is to figure out how to navigate it. It's not always easy, but it's worth the extra effort. Although I don't know the particulars of your room, I'm happy to offer some advice based on what I've learned from making my own mistakes and from watching others make theirs. If writers do anything, we study other people's behavior, especially when it gets them in trouble.
Example: When I was a producer on a series, I witnessed a first-time staff writer talking over other writers of all levels and pitching the same idea multiple times, after it was rejected. Often, these are typical newbie missteps, but when the writer was told that he was crossing the line, his response was, "I'm here to learn." Learn? That’s not why you are there. As a staff writer, you are given a title and a nice salary to do the job. Interns learn and observe. You are hired to be a writer on a staff.
Once you land the job, you can take a few days to take it all in, but most showrunners are hoping that you will chime in and contribute sooner rather than later. If, after the first week or two, you're unsure of how you're doing—whether you're talking too much or not enough—I suggest asking the co-EP, or another upper-level writer who can offer guidance. They have fewer demands on them than the busy showrunner and they've been in the business long enough to be able to accurately assess a situation. They may have even worked with the showrunner before and know them well. If they're nice and help you out, surprise them with Starbucks or a pair of cool socks.
Here's a quick list of do's and don'ts...Don't show up late, even if everyone else does. Do be enthusiastic and grateful to be there. Don't suck the energy out of the room with negativity. Do your research about the showrunner and get to know their voice. Don't think that you're there to save the show. Do find your strengths and what you can offer that makes you valuable. Don't be so nervous and needy that you get in your own way. Do your best and you can have the career of your dreams.
Even if you focus on pleasing your showrunner and being an asset to the series, you can't control if you’ll get picked up for Season 2. But by working hard, chances are good that you’re making a positive impression on the rest of the staff, the studio, and the network. These relationships can help you get your next job and the job after that and the job after that. Good luck and may you enjoy a long and successful writing career!
Send us 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 January 21, 2022 issue of the WGAW Connect newsletter)