WRITERS’ ROOM 101: Chutes and Ladders

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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One of my favorite Broadway musicals is Chicago. You should see it if you haven’t already; it’s a ton of fun. Anyway, Chicago features lots of great songs, one of which is called “Funny Honey,” and contains the lyric, “Sometimes I’m down, sometimes I’m up…”

That lyric came to mind as I started thinking about how to approach writing this post. Because when thinking about the long arc of your career as a TV writer, the reality for most of us is: sometimes you’re down, sometimes you’re up.

So what exactly does that mean?

In my previous post, I broke down the various titles given to TV writers, which are primarily used to indicate seniority. When you’re a story editor, you’ve ostensibly been in the game a little longer than a staff writer, an executive story editor has been working longer than a story editor, and so on. It’s a very simple hierarchy.

Following that logic, a novice writer who manages to remain gainfully employed – thereby earning a promotion and “title bump” each year – should rise up through the ranks from staff writer to co-executive producer in a mere six years. And following that logic, the TV industry should be flooded with an overwhelming number of co-executive producers at any given time, right? I mean, every season there are dozens if not hundreds of writers working, and if they’re all steadily moving up the ladder, there’s really no reason why there shouldn’t be an ever-growing number of writers at or near the very top of the staffing food chain year after year, right?

Well, yes. In theory. But in actual practice, that’s not quite how things tend to work.

Why aren’t there a million co-executive producers working in Hollywood, all vying for the same jobs all year round? Because sometimes youre down, sometimes youre up.

Here’s what I mean by that: in a perfect world, a year after you get your first job as a staff writer, you’d get bumped up to story editor. Then you’d become an executive story editor the year after that, and so on. But since the world we live in is far from perfect, most of our careers won’t follow such a straight-line trajectory.

To be more specific: for many of us, we’ll have to “repeat” a level or two here and there over the course of our working lives. And that’s why starting from the bottom and climbing to the top can take a little longer than expected.

Let’s say you’ve gotten that first writing job. You’re a staff writer on a new primetime series, and the network is so infatuated with your show that they’ve convinced themselves it’s going to be their big hit for the upcoming season.

And then a funny thing happens: despite glowing critical reviews and a massive marketing campaign…the audience decides not to show up. Ratings-wise, the show stumbles out of the gate and never recovers. In other words, it flops.

Maybe the show lasts an entire season before it gets canceled, but more likely than not, it’s yanked from the schedule long before then. That sucks. But it happens. And now, instead of the show being a hit and getting a second season in which you’d have been promoted from staff writer to story editor, Hollywood’s collective short memory kicks in and that show ends up having zero impact on the forward momentum of your career.

So what do you do? Odds are, you start over as a staff writer on a new show the following season.

Now you’ve got two years under your belt as a professional TV writer, but if your agent wasn’t able to negotiate a title bump to story editor for you on your next gig, you’re still a staff writer (on paper, at least). To be blunt, it’s sort of like flunking a grade in high school and having to repeat that grade until you’ve proven that you’re ready to advance from sophomore to junior or from junior to senior. It might seem unfair – because, in many cases, it is – but that’s just the way it works.

Okay. So let’s remain optimistic here. Let’s say you manage to get staffed again during the very next staffing season (if not sooner). You’re a staff writer again, which can be a bitter pill to swallow, but hey – it beats being unemployed, right? So this time you’re hoping and praying your new show a.) lasts more than a single season, and b.) decides to bring you back for its second season and award you that coveted title bump. And maybe that’s exactly what happens. You advance to story editor, but you’ve learned a very valuable lesson along the way: a title bump is not automatic. It is by no means a given, even if you deserve it.

This is why, for most of us, it takes longer than the aforementioned six years to go from staff writer all the way up to co-executive producer. Maybe your show got canceled. Maybe you got fired. Maybe you did everything right, but the show was forced to make some budget cuts, and a few of the writers got let go. When any of these things happen, you might find yourself having to “hold steady” at whatever level you’ve achieved in order to keep working while you’re patiently waiting for all the stars to properly line up in such a way that you get your title bump in a future gig.

You might know of some fellow writers who seem to fly up the ladder, either because they’re writing for a hit show that kept bringing them back year after year, or they somehow managed to move from one show to the next and their agent was savvy enough to get them a title bump each time. So you watch them from a distance, and it seems like, in the blink of an eye, they’ve gone from writers’ assistant to staff writer to co-e.p. while you’re still scrambling for anything that’ll pay the bills.

It happens. And it can be a little frustrating. But the fact is, no two careers will ever follow the exact same path or move at the same pace. It’s just as likely that you might be the one getting promoted at a steady clip while your writer friends are languishing somewhere at mid-level. All you can really do is tune all that out and focus on your own progress; anything else is just a distraction.

So if you ever find yourself wondering why someone’s been in the business seemingly forever, but they’re not as far along as you think they should be, it’s entirely possible that they had a run of bad luck and got stuck somewhere along the way. Due to circumstances beyond their control, haven’t been able to break through to a new level yet.

Conversely, there are times when writers who’ve achieved a certain level will accept jobs at a lower level just so they can remain employed. That makes it difficult for writers who are “on the rise” to get those jobs because, if an experienced showrunner who’s earned the title of executive producer is willing to take a pay cut and work as a co-executive producer on someone else’s show, what network would pass up that kind of bargain? They’d be getting all of the writer’s experience and talent for a fraction of their normal quote. And the writer gets to keep their kids in private school rather than risk their name and reputation getting cold because they haven’t worked in a while.

Over the years, I started calling this process “Chutes and Ladders” because writers can move up and down the hierarchy for a variety of reasons (and you won’t always know these reasons). It’s happened to me. It might happen to you as well.

So I would urge you not to assume that, once you’ve gotten that first or second writing job, that your career is set, even if the show turns out to be a smash success. A few years down the road, you might hit a dry spell where you can’t get hired for several seasons in a row, and you just may have to swallow your pride and accept a demotion just to keep your name top-of-mind for the showrunners and network executives who are doing the actual hiring.

With that in mind, your best bet for long-term survival in this industry is to save your money, hope for the best, and plan for the worst. There’s absolutely no telling what the future might hold.

Sometimes you’re down, sometimes you’re up.

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