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You see the title come up all the time at the movies: “written by.” You might then see something like “story by.” You might then see “directed by.” Who’s really in charge here? It’s even more confusing for TV, with “created by” and “directed by” and “story by” and “written by.”
It’s worth asking the question, especially if you want to be one: what does a screenwriter do?
Screenwriters develop and write screenplays for movies and TV. They can either start with an existing story, create their own, or be hired to revise, edit, polish, or completely rewrite a script at any point in a production’s process.
In the film world, writers are often hired by pitching “their take” on an existing project a studio is developing, but they can also sell their work through writing spec scripts and original pitches, though it is more difficult.
In the TV world, writers typically write original pilots they use to prove their writing merits to get hired onto other shows.
We’ll get more into what the job of a screenwriter is actually like below. There are big differences between what a writer does when working in feature film screenwriting versus TV screenwriting.
Let’s dive into it!
What is a screenwriter?
A screenwriter is a writer of screenplays. When you think of your favorite Netflix show or blockbuster movie, the screenwriter is the one who wrote it.
Oftentimes, multiple screenwriters will work on the same project, rewriting each other’s work: Or, in the case of a TV show, multiple writers will work together to create a whole season arc of episodes, then split up to write the individual episodes.
When you’re trying to figure out what a screenwriter does, it’s important to separate them by feature screenwriter or television screenwriter.
What does a feature screenwriter do?
A feature screenwriter, first and foremost, writes scripts for feature films. The business of being a feature screenwriter can be a confusing and winding road, but the key landmarks of the day to day job are this:
Act one: the outline phase.
A feature screenwriter always starts with an idea. That idea can be fleshed out into a logline or a two-page treatment or taken to draft right away. Still, as many professional and aspiring screenwriters will tell you, it is always best to outline your story before you start writing it.
Feature screenwriters can outline their stories in a couple of different ways. To begin, the screenwriter will want to decide on a story structure they are going to follow.
Most follow a simple three-act structure and use either a page number (Save the Cat) or sequence system to plan out the story’s individual ups and downs, referred to as story beats, according to (or playing against) the traditional Hollywood structure.
Whether you are writing an eight act sequence, 16 beat story, or three-act structure, the general shape will fall into the Hollywood structure as we’ve outlined in the article linked above.
Feature screenwriters will typically write out their story beats on notecards, as a beat sheet (a bulleted list of all the beats), or as a treatment (a walk through outline document of the whole story, just not in screenplay format).
You can see how to write a film treatment and some great examples here.
Act two: the writing phase.
Once the feature screenwriter feels confident they have something worth writing, they move forward to writing the first draft.
The first draft is one of the hardest to finish because until you write it, nothing exists. You would think that would make it easier, but it’s much harder to go from nothing to something than go from something to something else.
My advice to all aspiring screenwriters starting their first script is to be okay with it being bad. As long as you know where the story is going with your outline, you can write as shitty as you need to to finish the damn thing.
Don’t worry about it being perfect – perfect will come later. Much later. For now, focus on writing a version down that gets you to the next scene. If you have to write a single paragraph: “This is what happens,” then move on to the next scene, do it. You can come back to fix it once you get to the end.
For professional feature screenwriters, this part is probably one of the most fun parts. If you have a good outline, you’ll probably be excited to get to pages.
Keep in mind that a lot will change, and be open to changes you discover while writing because you might find better ways to do things than you originally planned.
I see outlines kind of similar to life plans. You should always have a life plan, but your life will rarely ever go according to plan. Your life is what happens in between the things you planned, and when great things start to happen, it’ll seem like it was all meant to be – as if you had planned it.
The best feature scripts are the same. They always seem so planned out – but who’s to say how many “plans” came between the first and the final draft?
Act Three: the rewrite phase.
Once a feature screenwriter has their first draft, now it’s time to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
A greatly respected author and screenwriter named Jack Kirby wrote a book called “Screenwriting is Rewriting,” and I couldn’t agree more.
So much of the best material comes from rewriting and rethinking what you thought was perfect before. Many feature drafts will go through 100+ revisions before they get close to the final draft.
In fact, the only reason there is a final draft is that the screenwriter stopped. Music producers often say that you don’t finish a song–you give up on it. It’s the same with screenplays.
An important thing for aspiring screenwriters to keep in mind is why you are rewriting the script.
Jack Kirby talks about this in his book: have a plan for each revision draft of what you want to change, and don’t change too much at once, or you won’t know what’s working and what’s not.
Kirby also recommends to try and stay as true to the original vision as possible because there was some spark of inspiration at the beginning that made you want to set out and tell this story.
That spark is the magic ingredient to keep the story alive, even through so many rewrites.
Now, there are many reasons why a feature screenwriter rewrites their scripts. Usually, it’s because they get notes that something isn’t working or could be stronger. These notes could be either from a peer reviewer, manager, or producer.
If the notes are from a peer, they are probably meant to help the screenwriter avoid some obvious missing ingredients or missed connections before taking it to a manager or buyer.
If the notes are from a manager, they are usually to help the screenwriter make the script as strong as possible to take to market.
If the notes are from a producer, they are imperative to getting the script made and produced, either by the studio exec giving the notes or the producer helping to shape the project before taking it to the buyers, who will then become new producers.
In every scenario, each round of notes is technically at the screenwriter’s discretion whether to take them or not.
However, it’s always good to listen to every note because it tells you what’s not working for that person. If five people tell you something’s not working, you need to fix it.
Oh, and if the buyer tells you something’s not working? You definitely need to fix it!
How do you become a feature screenwriter?
There are a couple ways to become a professional feature screenwriter.
The first is to follow the formula above and write what is called a spec script. This is a script no one is paying for until you take it out to the market and pitch it to potential buyers.
This can be a risky and time-intensive endeavor, as there is no guarantee the screenwriter will make a sale. But I do have some tricks for you, which you can read here.
The second is to get hired to write a pass of a script that a buyer is developing. This could be a script based on intellectual property the buyer owns or an original idea the buyer is developing.
To get put out for jobs like this, a screenwriter needs to have at least a manager or agent to submit their name for a meeting. They’ll then need to pitch “their version” of what they would do with the story. If the buyer likes it, they’ll get hired for an outline and/or the first draft.
The third is to get hired to rewrite a draft of a script that already exists. The same rules apply as above; the feature screenwriter will get set up with the meeting for the job, they’ll pitch how they would revise the script, then get hired if the buyer agrees with their vision for the changes.
How much does a feature screenwriter get paid?
Depending on the work the feature screenwriter is doing, there are different pay scales.
For instance, if a buyer pays for a spec script with an outline, they will get paid a certain amount, but if the screenwriter is hired to revise an outline or do a polish rewrite of an existing script, they will get paid something completely different.
To learn more about how much a feature screenwriter gets paid according to the WGA Schedule of Minimums, check out our article on the subject here.
What does a TV screenwriter do?
A TV screenwriter writes for TV. There are many different types of jobs for TV screenwriters, so let’s review a summary of the different roles and go over the job descriptions accordingly.
To begin, the “creator” of a TV series, at least in the first season, is called a showrunner. The showrunner is the one who, quite literally, runs the show. They have the final say on any and all story decisions, as it is for all intents and purposes their show.
That said, the term showrunner is more of an informal title. The technical job title for a showrunner would be executive producer. An executive producer is the highest level writer on a show and is usually the creator or one of the creators.
To become a showrunner, a TV writer either has to pitch a show that gets sold or get hired onto an existing show or new show that a studio buyer is developing. From there, the showrunner will hire a team of other writers to work together in what’s known as the writer’s room.
What is a writer’s room?
Almost every TV show (with special exception) is written by a committee of writers called the writer’s room. Led by the showrunner, the writer’s room all pitch ideas for story arcs and episodes, then break off to write individual episodes and help revise each other’s work.
Usually, the showrunner has two to three co-executive producers (co-eps) hired to help them run things.
As a showrunner, they can’t always be in the room with the rest of the writers because they have to go to set once the show starts filming the first batch of episodes. There will usually be one co-ep who acts as the stand-in showrunner when the showrunner can’t be there.
Under the executive level writers are other producer titles; there is the supervising producer level writer, the producer level writer, and the co-producer level writer (in descending order of seniority). These writers are considered mid-level writers for their careers.
While these are mostly ranked to define pay-level and seniority, if you are a supervising producer, you may be asked to do things above and beyond writing, like casting decisions or something similar. Otherwise, they are pitching and writing episodes like the others.
If you are a TV writer who isn’t at the producer level yet, you are probably either a staff writer, a story editor, or an executive story editor.
Story editor and executive story editor writers have been promoted from staff writer but are still at the beginning stage of their career. In contrast, a staff writer is the first official writer position in the writer’s room for a TV writer.
How do you become a TV screenwriter?
There are many ways to become a TV screenwriter, but the most tried and true way is to work your way up on a show, starting as a writer’s assistant.
A writer’s assistant is in charge of assisting the writer’s room by taking detailed notes, tracking the story, character, and draft changes, and helping with whatever else in between.
Occasionally they can pitch ideas to the writer’s room, which can be a way to earn respect among the other writers. Pitch enough good ideas (without overstepping your welcome), and you might get hired on to write an episode in the next season as a staff writer.
For more on how to become a writer for TV or Netflix, check out our article on the subject here.
How much does a TV screenwriter get paid?
There is a wide range of pay depending on a TV writer’s rank and seniority, but the biggest determining factor for how much a screenwriter is paid is how many episodes they write or are credited on.
For instance, a staff writer has a certain WGA-approved minimum pay scale determined on a per-episode basis but can get paid a salary on a week to week basis for their time pitching and creating stories for the months they spend in the room.
What are the pros and cons of writing screenplays for features versus TV?
Writing movies and writing television have their own individual pros and cons.
The general rule of thumb is that a TV writing job is a more stable income; you have guaranteed work for at least a year, and if the show lasts more than one season, you could be set up with a job for 3-5 years (depending on its level of success and where it’s airing or streaming).
Meanwhile, writing features gives you a certain amount more agency you don’t get as a junior level TV writer. You aren’t writing to make a showrunner happy, don’t have to work with a team, and have a less rigid schedule, but way less job security.
If you write for television, it might be easier to get staffed up on another show once the one you are working on ends and then move up the ranks as you switch shows (especially if the last show you worked on was popular and critically successful).
Writing feature films can be financially unstable
If you write for movies, it might be harder to get your next job or justify getting paid more next time, especially if the last film you made never saw the light of day or flopped at the box office; both of which are plenty likely.
Even if you get a lot of work rewriting other people’s work, there will almost undoubtedly be long periods without work as a feature writer, so you’ll need to have a side income to hold you over during those dry seasons.
In both situations, work is never guaranteed, but having more job stability for a career, especially if you are trying to start a family, is a definite pro. In this humble writer’s opinion, why not try to do both?
Before you are a working writer, your best asset is your writing!
If you write both features and pilots to hone your craft in the hopes of writing something great that will generate interest in you as a writer.
If you only write pilots but don’t have any experience working at an agency or as a writer’s assistant, you won’t have the experience needed to get staffed or sell and run your own TV show. You might not even have enough experience to get hired as a writer’s assistant.
But if you have a spec feature script that gets a lot of heat in contests or on the Black List, that could convince a showrunner to give you a chance as a writer’s assistant and hire you into their room.
If you only write features, it could take years before you meet the right person to share the right project with, especially if you haven’t worked at a studio or agency and live away from Los Angeles, Atlanta, or New York.
But if you have some great original pilots, you could attract the attention of a manager looking to staff you, who could then help you set up your feature with a producer who has the connections to get the project set up and in front of potential buyers.
When in doubt: do both!
You still need your work to shine in both scenarios, so hone your craft writing everything and anything you can.
Eventually, you’ll meet the right person to share the right project at the right time with, and you’ll be able to wow them with your writing.
As long as you keep writing, that is!
Grant Harvey is a freelance writer, screenwriter, and filmmaker based out of Los Angeles. When he’s not working on his own feature-length screenplays and television pilots, Grant uses his passion and experience in film and videography to help others learn the tools, strategies, and equipment needed to create high-quality videos as a filmmaker of any skill level.