I have worked as a television screenwriter for most of my adult life, and currently I’m working as a video game writer. Some of WOS’s readers have asked me how to get work as a writer, and I was reluctant to write a post about that because it’s such an individual question. My story is specific to my education, location and vocation (though if you’re curious, I’ll include my story at the end of this post). But, I do know a lot of writers of various disciplines (screenwriters, journalists, magazine editors, game writers, copy editors), so I decided to put that combined knowledge into a general post on how to get work as a writer. Here goes…
Professional writers, myself included, have all met aspiring writers who say, “Oh, I already know how to write. I got A’s in English class. I just need someone to hire me!” Or, even worse, “I don’t need to go to school for writing because creativity can’t be taught.” But regardless of your stance on creativity (born with it or learned), everyone must educate themselves on the craft of writing. Why? Because each writing discipline is a little bit different and has its own format, structure and rules.
Acquiring a writing education doesn’t necessarily mean you have to get a degree or a masters, though those things may very well help. If full-time school doesn’t fit into your life right now, there are lots of continuing education courses you can take. Also, if you are good at teaching yourself, the plethora of writing craft books out there are a fantastic resource.
However, take note that the one big advantage of formal education, be it full-time or part-time, is connections. When looking at schools, choose one where the professors are working writers. Not only will your professor be a good connection when you graduate, they will know people in the business to introduce you to. Even better, befriend your classmates because they may very well be in a position to hire you or let you know of job opportunities in the future.
2. Writing Samples
To get a job as a writer, you need writing samples of the type of writing you want to be paid for. I stress that point because I’ve met people who have short stories and want to get a TV gig. Well, you can’t get a job writing television without a television spec script. If you followed step one and got an education in the type of writing you want to do, you should have writing samples from class assignments. Even so, you should write more and continuously improve your craft. Education is the step that never really stops.
Next, make connections with people who can hire you. This is the step that frustrates most people. I bemoaned this myself when I was young and inexperienced, because it seemed as if people got jobs because of who they knew. And guess what? That’s absolutely true! So get out there and meet people. Again, if you went to school or took some writing classes, you’ve already got a few contacts. But the best way to make more is to simply approach people, either writers you admire or people you’d like to work for. You can find these people at industry events, conferences or online. Then ask if you can take them out for coffee and ask questions about the industry and their line of work. Do NOT ask for a job. This is not the time for that. If you’ve met a really generous person, they may request your writing samples, but don’t hand them a stack of paper on the spot. It’s the 21st century; email it. Afterwards follow up with a thank you. If you’re really lucky and you two hit it off, the other person may add you to their social network. Congrats! You’ve made a connection.
But what about the introverts? Some writers don’t feel comfortable talking to strangers. Well, luckily it is the Age of Internet and many connections can be made online via Twitter and blogging. Though I would still recommend meeting in person if possible.
4. Patience and Persistence
Finally, it’s important to note that once you finish the first three steps, the job offers won’t come promptly rolling in. And this seems like the appropriate time to tell my story…
> My Story
I attended Ryerson University for Radio & Television Arts and focused on screenwriting. Ryerson has a great program with professors who work in the industry. And I made even more contacts by interning at a small production company that produced great kids shows. I also went to some industry events Ryerson hosted where I met a writer who grew up in the same area of rural Ontario that I did. And I graduated with a television spec script that was okay but not great (as is to be expected from a 22-year-old newbie).
Then for the next four years I worked grunt jobs in the television and film industry (production assistant, driver, security – aka guarding pylons, etc.). During that time I read more screenwriting books and wrote another script, one that was much better than the one I wrote at Ryerson. I asked a few of my writer contacts if they could give me feedback on it. One of them was the writer I mentioned above. Another was a former professor at Ryerson who was now a full-time screenwriter. They both agreed it was a very good sample script.
Soon after that, I applied to the Canadian Film Centre for the Television Writing program. I don’t remember how I heard about it. My former professor might have told me. Either way, the deadline was that month and I had a spec script and letters of recommendation from my mentors, so I sent in the application. After paying off university, I had no plans to pay for more education (didn’t I already know how to write?), but the CFC program is prestigious and responsible for launching many screenwriting careers, so I gave it a shot.
And I got in. It was a six-month, full-time program. I quit my job and went back to school. I learned some stuff about writing, but the most important thing I got from that program was that our tiny class of eight was introduced to everybody in the entire TV industry in Toronto. We met all the agents, all the producers, and all the broadcasters.
So when we graduated, we all got jobs right away, right? Not exactly. This is where the patience comes in. I was actually the first person to get a writing job in my class, but it wasn’t from a connection I made at the CFC, it was from that writer I met years ago. He finally got his own show greenlit! Which meant he could hire who he wanted, and he wanted to give me a shot at my first writing credit. Yippee! And my second job also came from a contact made years ago while interning at that small production company that was quickly getting much bigger. Now, this is not to say the CFC didn’t have a big impact on my career because it certainly did. Graduating from the CFC gave me more credibility in the eyes of the contacts I made years earlier.
And then the ball just started rolling. One writing job led to another job which led to another. But that only happened because I had the education, the writing samples, the contacts, and the patience and persistence not to give up during those years working grunt jobs.
And now you all know my story! And even though I quit my career years ago, the contacts I made while I was a full-time screenwriter continue to come through with part-time writing gigs here and there. That’s how I ended up writing a video game this summer.
What about the rest of you? Are you paid to write stuff? How did you get that work? Share in the comments if you feel so inclined.