Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Reader question: How do I get hired as a writer's assistant?

Kyle asks:

I'm curious about how to land a job as a writer (or writer's assistant) on a sitcom. I've been told things as varied as working at an agency, interning with production companies, doing stand up, or inundating yourself at the UCB theater. I'd appreciate whatever advice you might have.

I'm going to tackle the writers' assistant part of this question first. To start, you should go read my interviews with writers' assistants Amy Baack and Scott Towler. Their experiences in getting their jobs couldn't be more different. That should give you an idea that there's no set way to get the gig.

Now for the more bitter response - how do you get hired as a writers' assistant? Through an act of God or network executive. Those jobs are highly coveted and the competition is fierce.

Last year, I got word from a friend that a series was in need of a new writers' PA. Determined to put myself on a path that might lead more directly to a writers' assistant job, I had my friend throw my resume into the ring. I should also mention that this friend was a very trusted assistant to the show's star, and gave me the highest possible recommendation. Better still, I seemed to have the exact qualifications they were looking for.

I was relieved that for once I might have the nepotism/favor factor working to my benefit, but I was still careful to go in for the interview with a full can-do attitude and not at all trading on the connection that got me there. I got the inevitable "With all your experience, why do you want this job?" question, and artfully navigated it. I flat out said that I had friends who started out as writers PAs and after they put in the hours and showed the right attitude, eventually moved up to writers' assistant, and in some cases full-fledged writers. I made sure they knew I was serious about the job, that I was a pro, and that I didn't see the job as being beneath me.

So naturally they gave it to someone else.

My friend did some digging, aghast that a recommendation that came from his boss's office was cast aside. It turned out that someone on the writing staff had a buddy who wanted the job.

For all I know, that guy was as qualified as me and did just as well in the interview. In fact, there's probably a pretty good chance of that - there are a lot of qualified people out of work in Hollywood. Or maybe he just knew someone with the right amount of pull. But that also speaks to a good lesson - no matter how strong your contact is, there's always someone with a stronger contact.

This past season was very competitive. I knew people on more than one show and despite how well they were placed in the chain of command, I didn't exactly get that many interviews. There was one series that needed to replace MULTIPLE PAs as they geared up for the new season and the network told them flat out who they had to hire for ALL of those positions! Yes, in that case the writing staff and the cast connections didn't mean anything, because "the suits" took care of their buddies.

So what have we learned? Get connected to someone in power.

As for how to become a writer, being an assistant is a great way to get in the door. Usually they graduate to staff after a couple years, so long their as boss is writing on a show and not in development. Note that was the experience of Rob Levine when he worked for the Judging Amy show-runner.

Write specs and get representation. That can get you out there for meetings. Or you could apply for writing fellowships. For more on those, check out this interview with Margaux Froley about how the Warner Bros Television Fellowship landed her a staff writer job.

If any other writers' assistants out there want to chime in and share their experience, feel free.


  1. I'm a writers' assistant on a network show. I don't know about network executives, but I got an interview to be Writers PA after assisting in studio creative for three years. I think working at an agency or studio is probably the best way as many writers seemingly have their most trusted relationships with agents and studios. I have a friend who got his gig through UCB, though, so there are other roads, but I think a professional working relationship is the best way short of blood relations. There was one guy who got a Writers PA gig via a Twitter relationship with a showrunner, but I think that's a very delicate endeavor to pursue that could easily backfire. If you can get meetings off your spec, that may be a good way to introduce yourself. I've been advised to take writers to dinner and let them know I'd be interested in learning as an assistant.

    The best way to get a job that requires connections and experience is to get another job that provides it. My screenwriting professor told me before graduation it would take at least five years to get that position once in the Hollywood assistant system. The trick is getting that first job and maneuvering from there. Good luck!

  2. Thanks! Also, Unknown, way to be awesome.

  3. A friend used to drag me along to Battlestar Galactica screenings with cast and crew, and there were three of us who wanted David Eick's PA job. There was this one kid - very young, VERY ambitious - who one of the other writers took a liking to. I knew that kid was going to get the job, but I thought, what the hell, so I submitted a resume and cover letter that were not really for that job; instead they were designed to make me memorable as a writer. Not sure it did anything in the long run, but it was an interesting experiment.

    Naturally, the kid got the job. The young, impressionable youth with a friend on the inside will ALWAYS get that job. Plus rumor had it Eick wasn't interested in having a female assistant. Not sure if that's true.

  4. I've been a writers' PA for 2 months. I quit my lab technician job in Virginia, and moved to LA with the hopes of becoming a (paid) screenwriter. I got the job because one of the producers of the show follows me on Twitter. It IS a tricky situation, but she told me that almost no one has the balls to ask. There's no set way of breaking into this industry. But that's kind of why I love it.

  5. Delaynamichelle - Hired by Twitter! That's got to be the most awesome story I've heard in a while.

  6. I was at UCB last night and hired three really good looking people in the front row. I have a show there on Thursday and might do the same.