WRITERS’ ROOM 101: Stay Woke

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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Let’s talk about room etiquette.

In my experience, one of the best things about working in a writers’ room has always been the relaxed atmosphere. You get to come to work dressed pretty much any way you want, crack jokes with your co-workers in between pitching ideas and breaking stories all day, and (best of all!) nobody makes you punch a time clock. Is it still hard work? Yes. Can it be stressful at times? Absolutely. Still, though, to say that your average writers’ room has a “laid back vibe” would be an understatement. There are certainly exceptions to this rule – rooms that are a real grind to work in – but for the most part, if you took a survey, I think you’d find that most TV writers would point to far more pros than cons with respect to their work environment.

WRITERS' ROOM 101: Stay Woke by Eric Haywood | Script Magazine

In fact, as I think about this topic, I suddenly remember a day back when I was in college, studying filmmaking at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. A friend of mine – who was majoring in something else entirely – overhead a brief conversation between me and one of my film professors, and later told me how shocked he was that the professor and I were so informal with each other. Hearing me call my professor by his first name stunned my friend, because in his field of study (I’ve long since forgotten whatever he was majoring in), there was a strictly formal relationship between the students and their teachers, who were always addressed by their titles: it was always Doctor This or Professor That, no matter what.

My point is this: in most creative environments, informality is pretty much standard operating procedure. Even when there’s a clear-cut hierarchy, people seldom get too hung up on titles, because everyone’s taking part in a collaborative process, and a good idea can come from anyone, at any time.

That’s especially true of writers’ rooms, where anyone from the writers’ assistant all the way up to the showrunner might suddenly pitch the One Big Idea that everyone’s spent hours trying to come up with for a particular episode.

So what’s all this have to do with room etiquette? It’s simple: no matter how informal a room you find yourself working in, you cannot afford to let yourself get too relaxed. While I encourage you to enjoy every minute of the writing process in the room – especially if you’re lucky enough to work with a genuinely fun bunch of people – there’s one other thing you must always remember to do: stay woke.

For the uninitiated, the term “stay woke” is slang, and it’s not an expression that’s specific to Hollywood. Urban Dictionary defines it thusly:

“Deriving from “stay awake,” to stay woke is to keep informed of the shitstorm going on around you in times of turmoil and conflict…”

Here’s how that applies to you as a working TV writer: the sense of camaraderie you feel amongst your co-workers – born from sharing deeply personal stories that become fodder for the show’s scripts and NSFW jokes told openly around the table while everyone’s eating lunch – can lead to a false sense of security if you’re not sufficiently mindful. At the end of the day, it’s still a job. And that means there’s always going to be a line you should not cross with your fellow writers, particularly with those who outrank you.

As for where the line is drawn, you’ll have to figure that out for yourself, because every room and every combination of personalities is different. In some rooms, staff writers are actively discouraged from speaking at all. You’re mainly there to learn and not slow down the process while the more experienced writers are plowing through story ideas. And in other rooms, there’s more of an “all hands on deck” approach, in which everyone’s expected to pitch ideas and give feedback regardless of their job title.

You shouldn’t have much trouble recognizing which type of room you’re working in, because it’ll probably be explained to you at the very start of the season so there’s no confusion about what’s expected. Still, even if you’ve enjoyed several weeks or even months of being treated as a peer by writers who’ve been doing this a lot longer and are making a lot more money…stay woke. Be aware that both your job performance and attitude are being quietly observed and evaluated at all times.

This is not to make you paranoid or overly self-conscious every time you set foot in the room. I’m not suggesting that anyone’s out to get you. I simply want to remind you that even the least-formal room has its limits. So if you’re a staff writer or story editor, don’t feel comfortable enough to get into a pissing match with a supervising producer over some contentious scene or story beat just because you were swapping bad-date horror stories the day before. You’ll be amazed by how fast things can switch from fun and games to fireable offense if you’re clearly out of line.

Actually, I take that back. More than likely, you won’t be amazed by how fast things can change, because chances are, no one will say anything to you about it. But rest assured: if there’s a heated debate in the room and you take it upon yourself to tell the higher-ranking writers that you know best, conversations will be had about your compatibility with the rest of the staff. And that you won’t be aware of those conversations until your agent gets the dreaded call from the showrunner that you’re “not a good fit” for the room.

Your ability to “play well with others” can be as critical to your career success as your actual writing talent. And sometimes that means shutting your mouth and respecting the hierarchy of the room even if you’re convinced that the other person’s wrong and you’re right. You could be the best writer in the world, but if a showrunner decides not to hire you because she’s heard stories about how you pissed off your last showrunner, what will it matter?

Don’t let the good times go to your head. Stay woke.

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