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Writers' Room 101: The Most Important Rule

There are very few absolute musts when it comes to the writers’ room. On almost any show you can name, there are small variations in terms of how certain things get done, but the basic process is pretty much the same nearly everywhere. Therefore, I’m going to do my best to refrain from being overly didactic and handing down “You must always do this!” and “You must never do that!” decrees.

Important Stamp

However, having said all that, this is one of those occasions where I have no choice but to be a little heavy-handed, because there’s one rule that, if you break it, you’re very possibly screwed. And once you start working as a television writer, no one will pull you aside every day and give you constant reminders. So write this one down if you have to.

There’s an expression that TV writers like to throw around a lot. You might hear it spoken seemingly in jest, but trust me, it’s 100% serious.

The expression is, “What’s said in the room stays in the room.”

This is The Most Important Rule Ever, and here’s what it means: you must never, ever, EVER repeat outside the writers’ room what your staff discusses inside those walls.

Just don’t do it. If you’re ever in doubt about whether something’s safe to share with an outsider, do yourself a favor and err on the side of caution.

Everyone speaks freely in the room. Every imaginable "What if...?" scenario is openly contemplated. But don’t go home and whisper to your boyfriend/girlfriend/roommate/therapist about that big guest star the showrunner is hoping to cast. Don’t run and tell your best friend about the big season finale twist ending that the writing staff just came up with. And please, if you care about your career at all, say nothing specific about your show on any social media platform until after the network makes it public. Jumping the gun could turn out to be a fireable offense.

During your daily brainstorming sessions, everyone on the writing staff needs to feel safe enough to toss out ideas that may or may not be great. Pitching bad ideas to get to the good ones is a time-honored process, and it often works. Someone (maybe even the showrunner!) might even randomly suggest killing off a certain character, and if word gets out that such an idea was floated even for an instant, who knows what kinds of headaches it could cause.

We’ll delve more into the pitching process in a later column. But “what’s said in the room, stays in the room” goes deeper than just protecting plot details and possible casting coups.

Whether you’re working on a character-driven drama or a more plot-driven procedural cop or medical show, writers will sometimes volunteer stories from their personal lives and either offer them up for use in the show, or just share them as fuel to spark other ideas. These stories can range from the mildly embarrassing to the hilarious to the deeply painful, and even if no one says so out loud, you’re being trusted (sometimes by total strangers if it’s the early days of writing a first-year show) by your coworkers never to repeat these things. Do not betray that trust.

Just don’t do it.

This rule extends to and protects everyone in the room, including you. One of your most humiliating past experiences might be a perfect fit for the show you’re working on, but you’d never share it if you suspect someone’s going to blab it all over town, or tweet about it, or whatever.

I said earlier, “if you break this rule, you’re very possibly screwed” because if someone shares a painful story with the room, and you repeat it elsewhere, and it gets back to that person, well, who’d want to work with you again? You might be the best writer on earth, but given the choice, most people would rather hire a mediocre writer who knows how to keep their mouth shut than a genius writer with a history of violating the privacy of the room. You do NOT want that reputation. It will follow you.

Just don’t do it.

Now, here’s where it all gets a bit tricky. Despite everything I just said, there are certain cases where the secrecy of the room may not necessarily apply.

I have to tread very carefully here, because I’m not a lawyer and don’t want to be seen as giving legal advice. But at the end of the day, the room is still a workplace like any other. No one has the right to create a hostile work environment through a constant barrage of inappropriate sexual/racial comments and/or jokes, or anything of that nature.

But as an additional caveat, it’s generally accepted that sitcom writers’ rooms (and many drama rooms as well) are sort of a “safe haven” where all kinds of racial, sexual, and gender-related jokes are allowed to fly – often the more scathing, the better. The idea is that writers need to be free to be as funny as they can in order to discover the best jokes for the show. Again, you’ll have to determine for yourself where your personal “line” is, and what constitutes someone crossing it.

Every network has a Human Resources department, and if you honestly feel like you have to avail yourself of their services (i.e., file a complaint), that’s a judgment call you’ll have to make on your own after weighing all the circumstances of a given situation. But that’s a whole other topic for another day. What I’m talking about here are the 99.9% of writers’ rooms where your only concerns are where to order lunch that day and not spilling some cool, privileged information that was shared with you.

Just don’t do it.

What’s said in the room, stays in the room.

Learn from television writers in
Inside the Room: Writing Television with
the Pros at UCLA Extension Writers' Program

inside the room