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.
What’s in a title? Well, everything and nothing.
The vast majority of television writers, when asked what they do for a living, will simply describe themselves using the easiest, broadest term at hand: “writer.” It’s short, it’s to the point, and it’s a word that everyone understands (or, at least, they think they do…). Logically, then, it would follow that everyone on a writing staff shares a more or less equal amount of responsibility and authority, since they’re all writers. Right?
Even a cursory glance at the onscreen credits of any given television show tells us that no one on a writing staff is simply credited as “writer.” Instead, everyone has his or her own job title, and those titles serve several purposes. Primarily, they indicate different levels of seniority, creating a hierarchy in the writers’ room that’s often unspoken of but is nevertheless very real. And as a writer moves up the career ladder, with each new title comes a new set of job responsibilities (which may vary wildly from one show to another) and a bump in pay. So these titles really do mean something, even though, like I said above, we often just refer to ourselves using the catchall descriptor “writer.”
So let’s talk about these titles and what they mean. Here’s the industry-standard list, in order from lowest- to highest-ranking:
Executive Story Editor
Generally speaking, the goal for most television writers is to advance from staff writer to executive producer as quickly as possible. Along the way, we hope to sharpen our writing skills and acquire a wealth of experience (ranging from dealing with production and post-production to interacting with networks, studios, casts, crews, and so on) necessary to one day create and successfully run our own show(s). Of course, not everyone working as a television writer aspires to be a showrunner – some may feel they’re genuinely not cut out for it – but for those that do, rising up through the ranks one title bump at a time can result in the kind of school-of-hard-knocks education you can’t get from any school or how-to book.
In a perfect world, a writer advances from one title to the next with each passing season of the show that employs them, but there are several reasons why this may not automatically happen. But we’ll stick a pin in that for now and discuss some of those reasons in the next post.
In the meantime, let’s briefly break down each job title.
This is the entry-level position. In most cases, your career will start here. You typically aren’t guaranteed to write an episode of the show during the season, and you may or may not even have your name and title listed in the show’s end credits. But you’re in the room, and hopefully that means you’re learning. Long story short, being a staff writer is all about paying your dues.
Although the title is a bit fancier, the job really isn’t all that much different from being a staff writer. In other words, you’re not literally editing stories; you’re pitching ideas in the room and writing at least one episode of the show that season. “Story editor,” in other words, is basically just code for “second-year writer.” At this level, you’re still looked at as a “baby writer” (a widely-used term that I’ve never particularly cared for), someone who’s still got some dues to pay. But the big advantage now is that you’ve gained a certain amount of validation from having worked on at least one season of one show, and you’ve proven yourself capable enough to be hired not just once, but twice. Plus, your name is now listed in the end credits for all the world to see. You’re on your way.
EXECUTIVE STORY EDITOR
Spoiler alert: despite the snazzy title, an executive story editor is not an executive by any stretch of the imagination. This is where you enter what’s considered “mid-level writer” range, and once again, in the most literal sense, you’re still a writer just like before. However, now you’re in your third year (at least) as a professional writer, and you’ve gotten a few notches in your belt. You can expect to be afforded a bit more respect than the lower-level writers, but less so than those higher up the ladder than you. If you haven’t already, now’s the time to really start looking for ways to make yourself indispensable to your show’s staff beyond the writing process.
Okay, you’re finally a co-producer. But guess what? You’re still a writer. That’s mainly what you do. But having the word “producer” in your title conveys a certain amount of achievement, and it says to people that you’ve been at this for a while. With luck, that will open a few more doors to you that the lower-level titles might not.
As I keep saying, the primary responsibility that comes with each of these titles is writing, and this one’s no different. But depending on your showrunner’s inclination, you can expect to be assigned some duties that have nothing to do with the actual writing process, like sitting in on casting sessions that the upper-level producers are too busy to attend. It’s all a part of the process of helping you gain more experience so that you, in turn, can provide more value to your show. Also, in many cases, your name now moves from the end credits to the opening credits sequence. Progress!
Now you’re no longer mid-level; you’ve graduated to “upper-level writer” status (although some will argue the cutoff point for upper-level begins at co-executive producer). It’s the last stop before reaching the coveted “co-executive producer” title. By now, your writing chops should be in excellent shape, and you’ve been in the business long enough to have formed some solid relationships among network and studio executives as well as your fellow writers. Your showrunner will lean on you more and more these days, so you’d better be ready to prove yourself.
While many shows have more than one “co-e.p.,” there’s often one who’s in charge of running the room in the showrunner’s absence. This person is sometimes referred to as the show’s “number two,” meaning their second in command following the showrunner. Obviously, at this level, you’re expected to function at a very high level, as all the other writers on the staff report to you. You’ll often review – and in some cases, rewrite – the other writers’ drafts before they’re delivered to the showrunner.
Most commonly, this is the person who created the show, wrote the pilot, and oversees every aspect of the show’s production. Of course, there are some executive producers who take over after the series creator steps down, and some who actually created a show but, due to a lack of experience, must work with an veteran showrunner to carry out the day-to-day tasks. But for all practical purposes, this is the top of the television writing food chain, what you might call the “author” of a series.
That’s a very bare-bones overview of the various job titles. As I’ve said before in a previous post (maybe even more than one), none of these “rules” are carved in stone, and exceptions can be found in every case. But armed with this information, hopefully you can begin to see a career in television mapped out in front of you.
- More articles by Eric Haywood
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- Primetime: How much personal background should I reveal to showrunners?