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WRITERS' ROOM 101: Writing And Rewriting Your TV Episode

Eric Haywood has spent over a decade writing for network and premium cable television series including ABC’s Private Practice, Showtime’s Soul Food, NBC’s Hawaii, and the Fox drama Empire. Follow Eric on Twitter at @EricHaywood.

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Congratulations! You finally made it.

You’ve pitched. You’ve beat and broken. You’ve outlined.

You’ve completed – along with lots of help from the rest of your writing staff – all the steps necessary to get the episode you’ll be writing approved by the powers that be. Now the day has finally come when the showrunner gives you the go-ahead to actually begin the script. That first time (the first few times, really, if you’re anything like me) can be a little nerve-wracking, because it’ll feel like you’re being kicked out of the relative safety of the writers’ room to face the dreaded blank page (or blank screen, as it were) all on your own. And there’s no place to hide if the script you ultimately deliver doesn’t quite turn out to be the heartbreaking work of staggering genius everyone had in mind based on the outline.

But don’t panic. It’s perfectly natural to feel a little apprehensive. You’ll get through it.

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Not to sound all pep-talky, but the first thing to keep in mind is that you are, in fact, a talented writer. They never would’ve hired you otherwise. So you’ve got to take a deep breath, open up your computer, and just dive in. Besides, you don’t have time to stress out, anyway – you’re on a deadline. It's time to get to work writing and rewriting your episode!

Whether you prefer to write the draft in scene order or jump right to a particular storyline because you find it easiest (or hardest) is up to you. You’ll generally have about a week to complete the draft, and it’s your call in terms of how you choose to attack it. Just make sure you don’t miss whatever due date you’ve been given. And like I mentioned recently in the post about outlining, it’s always a good idea to aim for completing your draft a day or two ahead of schedule if at all possible, so you can get some early feedback from one of the other writers on staff (preferably a co-executive producer). They’re there to help you deliver the best draft you possibly can, so take advantage of the opportunity.

The first few pages might feel a little rocky. That’s perfectly natural, too. I’ve found that it’s because you’re suddenly not writing in your own voice; you’re writing in the voice of the show. It might take some time for you to get into the right headspace to properly “channel” the show in script form, but it’ll come to you. I’m assuming you’ve already done your homework by this point and read as many of the show’s previous scripts that you can get your hands on. If so, just trust your instincts and start cranking out those pages.

During this time, you’ll be excused from the writers' room while the rest of the staff continues pitching ideas and breaking stories for the episodes that will come after yours. And once your week is up, you’ll turn in a draft that says “Writer's First Draft” on the cover page.

And that’s where things begin to really get interesting.

Because “Writer’s First Draft” means exactly that – FIRST draft. In other words, you should by no means assume that the script you turn in marks the end of that episode’s writing process. Nope. It's actually just beginning.

In many cases - especially if you're at or near the bottom of the writing staff's pecking order - the head writer will read it, give you notes, and kick the script back to you for revision. Then you'll apply those notes - some of which you'll agree with, some you won't. Do your level best to implement every note, and ask for clarification on a particular note if it's not clear. You're not in a position to refuse ANY note, but if there's a note that you really, truly, vehemently disagree with down to your bones, you'll have to (politely and professionally) explain your point of view and try to win the higher-ups over to your side. Don't ever respond to a note from your bosses with, “I see what you mean, but I'd rather keep it the way I wrote it. I just like it my way better.” The notes you receive are not optional or subject to your approval.

After you turn in your second draft (and on the cover page, you'll put "Writer's Second Draft"), the script then gets sent to the showrunner, who is invariably too busy to give you another round of notes and wait for you to come back with yet another draft. So she'll just take it and rewrite the changes she wants directly into your script.

When all that's done, the new draft is labeled "Production Draft," and as that name implies, this is the draft that gets circulated to the cast and crew so they can begin preparing to shoot it.

When the production draft comes out, you'll most likely do what every writer I know does: go through the script with a fine-toothed comb and at a feverish pace, hunting down every change the showrunner made to see how much of your original draft survived this whole process. Some of the changes you'll have no choice but to acknowledge as legitimate improvements on what you came up with. And in all honesty, some of the changes will probably make you cringe.

But you will deal.

Suck it up. Be a professional. And console yourself with the fact that everyone gets rewritten by the showrunner. And even showrunners sometimes have to acquiesce to notes they receive from the network or studio. So you’re not alone.

Here’s the upside, though: unlike the feature film world, where screenplays can often languish in an eternal sea of rewrites (or long waits while an actor decides if she wants to commit to playing the lead), your teleplay already its cast attached, a director in place, a shooting schedule, and an airdate. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, it’ll get produced and it’ll get broadcast. And if you’re lucky, by the time it airs, you’ll already be off to the races writing another one.

Get tips on crafting a great pilot in Dan Calvisi's webinar,
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