How to Write a TV Pilot, pt. 6: Re-writing, Editing & What to Do Next
I feel a tremendous amount of relief when I finish a first draft, even though all I can think about is what a huge mess I made. My goal was for thirty pages, but I probably got closer to twenty-three or thirty-seven. I got a new idea for where to take the show halfway through writing it that’s reflected in the second half, but not in the first. Characters reference events that don’t happen. What is on the page is not for human consumption.
But that’s okay because you’re going to re-write the shit out of your script. Maybe once, maybe a lot of times. How many times you do it is up to you, but personally I don’t let anyone see it until I’m at least a few drafts in. I’ll do a draft for clean up, one for tying loose ends, a punch for jokes, for characters, to slightly change phrases and word choices, and if necessary, to rip out entire chunks of the script for major rewrites. Don’t be afraid to cross out your favorite moments, characters, scenes — the stuff you had in your head when you had the idea in the first place. If it’s not working or needs to be changed, change it. To be an effective editor of your own work, you need to first and foremost be honest with yourself. Cut everything that doesn’t work — your concern is for the larger narrative now.
To be an effective editor of your own work, you need to first and foremost be honest with yourself.
You’ll never be truly objective, but distancing yourself from it emotionally is crucial. What I find helps is to put the script away and not look at it for a certain length of time. You probably don’t have forever, but even resting for a week and then looking at it with fresh eyes is a tremendous help.
If you get the sense that something is wrong but you can’t quite pinpoint what it is, look at the context clues. Is there a certain point in your script where things begin to go wrong? Do some things work at some points, but not at others? What’s the difference there? Could it be a specific character that isn’t working? Did you select the right moments for your major plot points? I said in the first part of this series to ask yourself a lot of questions. That goes for editing, as well. Your mission is to get to the heart of what works and what doesn’t.
Once you’ve done all you can to revise the script yourself, you send it to others to get their thoughts.
Who should I ask to give me notes?
Getting other people’s eyes on your script is a necessary part of the process. You can be so close to a script that you don’t even realize that parts of it are unclear or even don’t make any sense to another person. If you can, send it to multiple people and see what they think. If possible, sending it to smart people who know what they’re talking about is best. If you know someone with real connections to the entertainment industry, it might be best to hold off until your script is closer to completion, but that’s your call.
Other people will inevitably have insight into your work that you hadn’t considered, but it is important that you know what notes to take and which to ignore. Someone might tell you to change something that’s your favorite part of the script. And you should very seriously consider that you need to change it — that what you love is actually hurting your work. But also don’t be afraid to go with your instinct. If you vehemently disagree with a note someone gives you even after you examine it from all sides, then don’t take the note.
If you vehemently disagree with a note someone gives you even after you examine it from all sides, then don’t take the note.
The purpose behind having other people read your script and give you notes is to gain outside perspective on your work and see if successfully connects with others. But also know that other people possibly don’t know what they’re talking about. Maybe they didn’t even read your script very closely. Be open to all and any criticism, but in the end, go with your gut.
What about a live table read?
One of the best things you can do for your script is getting it read out loud and hear how it sounds in the mouths of real people. So if you can organize actors (or friends) to read your script live, problem areas and weaknesses are going to reveal themselves much more clearly than if you’re just reading it in your head. Clunky dialogue will make itself obvious. And when you have actors performing the script in semi-real time, you can actually get a sense of your script as a story.
Depending on where you live (like a major city), a lot of local comedy theaters will help organize live table reads where an audience might even show up. If you don’t have access to that, gathering your friends works too. Invite them over for pizza and ask them if they’ll read your script. It probably won’t be the same as getting actors to do it, but hearing your words out loud is enough to offset your friends’ bad acting.
What about paying someone to look at my script?
There are lots of professional script doctors out there who will take your money in exchange for detailed notes on your script. There are lots of seminars you can go to where people will lay out a lot of the concepts I’ve been laying out and perhaps even more. And possibly a lot better than I have been doing.
I’ve never looked into hiring someone like this, but I know of people who have and it apparently worked out well for them. I know someone who is much more successful than me who did it. So I don’t want to say don’t do it, but unless you’re really stuck and don’t know what else to do, I would say it’s probably an unnecessary step. If you have people you know and trust and can field their opinions in a way that works for you, that should be enough.
If you do decide to hire someone to look at your script, my main advice would be to be wary.
If you do decide to hire someone to look at your script, my main advice would be to be wary. Looking for positive reviews online would be a good precautionary step to take, but keep in mind people don’t like admitting that they got taken. Lots of monsters prey on hopeful aspiring writers and may be running scams. Some people inflate their credits so they sound more qualified than they actually are. And though a script doctor may come from a position of authority, they may not necessarily have the best notes for you.
So much of this comes down to subjective opinion. Yes, there is structure and there are ways to write that work and have worked for a very long time. Stuff you should know if you’re writing a script. But every single person, no matter how many scripts they’ve sold, brings their own biases with them wherever they go. Even when you’re paying somebody, the best advice I can give you is to go with your own instincts. I don’t want to make it sound like all — or even most — script doctors are charlatans. Just be careful.
When is my script done?
You can probably always find something to change about your pilot script. Some minor dialogue word choice to adjust or nitpick. But your script is finished whenever it feels like it’s finished to you. A lot of this stuff is based purely on your instinct. Whenever the moment is that you feel like you can do no more to make your script better, you’re finished. Congratulations. Celebrate. You’ve earned it.
I’m being a little sarcastic, but it really is a milestone worth celebrating. Most people do not get this far. It’s hard to finish a script, especially your very first. It takes a lot of emotional and mental energy to see something like this to conclusion. That being said…
Okay, what do I do next?
So you have a polished half-hour television pilot — what do you do now? How do you get a job as a writer? Well, that’s the big question. That’s the question I have every time I wrap up on a show. It’s a question that there’s no straight answer to. Everybody has a different story for how they broke in to the business. Which is simultaneously comforting and terrifying.
The fact that there is no clear path to breaking in as a staff writer is both a help and a hindrance. Mostly a hindrance. But not all is lost. The good thing is that there are multiple pathways you can take. Here are a few of them that I know of:
- If there is a defined career path to becoming a TV staff writer, it’s by becoming a writer’s assistant. Writer’s assistants type all the stuff down that the writers say in the room and do a lot of thankless grunt work. The good thing is that a lot of the time, a show’s writers assistants will usually get to write at least one of the scripts from that season. Writer’s assistants usually start off as office production assistants who work their way up. Being a writer’s assistant is no guarantee you’ll get promoted to a writer and many stay as writer’s assistants or script coordinators for years and never get promoted. But it is at least a path to get there. Here is a Splitsider article about how to get a writer’s assistant job which I assume is all good advice because I was lucky and never had to be a writer’s assistant. Take their word for it.
- You should also look into submitting your scripts to festivals. Like script doctors, you should be skeptical of the legitimacy of festivals — especially the ones that require a submission fee. But a lot of them are on the level and offer grand prizes that include cash and face time with industry people, agents, and managers. Do your research before submitting and especially before giving somebody your money.
- If you qualify for them, you should definitely submit your scripts to diversity programs and writer’s fellowships. Most of the television networks and major TV production companies have one of the two. Most of the diversity programs, for instance, guarantee a few spots from the program to be hired as staff writers on various shows by that production company or network. The Writers Guild website has a big list of a bunch of diversity programs and writer’s fellowships for you to peruse.
- Especially if you’re writing comedy, become involved at comedy theaters like the Upright Citizens Brigade. Network and talent management go to places like the UCB to scout for new talent, including writers. So even if performance or improv isn’t your thing, it might be helpful (if expensive) to enroll in their sketch writing program. Becoming known as a performer — sketch, improv, stand-up — is how a lot of writers become known and staffed.
But above all, keep writing. Get your work out there. Write as much as possible so the most amount of people can see it. Expand your network. Collaborate with people whose goals are parallel to yours. Post your stuff online. Tweet, blog, do stuff on YouTube. Produce a webseries. Do everything you can. Discipline yourself so that you make yourself write and work every single day. You increase your odds of exposure and as a side effect you also get better as a writer.
Do everything you can. Discipline yourself so that you make yourself write and work every single day. You increase your odds of exposure and as a side effect you also get better as a writer.
It is very difficult to break through as a screenwriter so it makes sense to use every possible tool at your disposal. I have a career as a writer because I knew somebody who knew somebody. When my shot came up I had material to show. And I’ve been hanging on by my fingertips ever since.
The work doesn’t stop when you’ve written your pilot. It’s unfortunately only the beginning of a lot more work, rejection, and frustration. And the work that you do is the only thing that you can actually control. So if you’ve been waiting, start writing now and don’t stop until you have enough money where you don’t have to anymore.
Which, yes, should be the ultimate goal. Oh, artistic fulfillment, too. But mostly money.