The Writers’ Assistant

Apr 17, 2019 by

Mauro Flores – Writers’ Assistant on Starz’s VIDA / formerly an associate producer on CBS’s THE AMAZING RACE
Ed McCarthy – Writers’ Assistant on USA/Netflix’s DARE ME

How did you land your position as writers’ assistant?

Ed McCarthy:  Networking and connections. These positions really aren’t advertised, so you gotta let people know what you’re looking for and also invest in genuine connections with people. I met the co-showrunner years ago and we became friends. When the show was picked up, she put me up for the WA position.

Mauro Flores:  The showrunner is an acquaintance I’ve known since high school, plus one of our mutual friends encouraged us both to take a shot at working together.  I unfortunately had to abruptly quit a day job (a better paying one, mind you) to take the position, but it was definitely a “now or never” moment for me. 

What specific skills does a writers’ assistant need to have?

Ed: Generally, a good writers’ assistant should:

  • Type fast (and quietly)
  • Be an active listener who can track multiple thoughts at once while also prioritizing the important threads of a conversation
  • Be able to synthesize and organize these thoughts so the notes are concise, organized, and easy to follow for the writers.
  • Have a good sense of story. This will help you to better organize notes.
  • Be personable and easygoing. You’re in the room with the writers for the entire day. You want to make sure the writers enjoy working with you.
  • Know your place. Only speak up if you need clarification for notes or missed a point a writer was making. After several weeks, you’ll get a sense of the room and whether a seldom pitch or two from you will be welcome.

Mauro:  The ability to type fast, listen well, and recognize story.   Also endurance.  There’s gonna be a lot of long nights for you, guaranteed.

What type of learning opportunities and/or interaction with the writing staff is there as a writers’ assistant?

Ed:  This will vary greatly depending on the show you are on and the vibe of the room. If you do a good job and are easy to work with, the writers will remember and want you back for future seasons (or may recommend you to some of their colleagues for jobs). Some may offer to read you, which is great but not a requirement.  Depending on your experience and the episode order, some assistants may be asked to write or co-write the story and/or script for a freelance episode, which is obviously the dream but in no way should be your expectation.  If this happens, it’s a gift.  And of course the gold at the end of the rainbow is to be promoted to staff writer on a future season.

Mauro:  You talk to them everyday, and you get to see how they work in a room.   You watch them pitch stories, ideas, and work stuff out, and it really helps demystify what goes on in those rooms because at the end of the day they’re just people working in an office making a living through entertainment. 

What are some of the things you learned as a writers’ assistant?

Ed:  A lot of what I’ve learned has been more the macro.  Like many, I’ve written spec scripts and pilots; in those, I’ve focused on the episode – what will happen in this hour of television? In the room, it’s been great to see the season arc and how the writers architect moments in earlier episodes that really set up big moments in later episodes.

Mauro:   The importance of outlining and keeping your ego in check.  Outlining is key, it’s the where the story begins and ends, and it’s the first and probably most frustrating step of the entire TV writing process.  And as for your ego, you’re probably gonna get a lot of shit, that’s just part of it.   There’s no guarantee you’ll get a job as a writer on that show or if it’ll even get another season, and people don’t really care too much about what you have to say, but it’s definitely still worth it for the experience.  

How did being a writers’ assistant make you a better writer?

Ed: I have more of a laser focus with my scenes. In the past, I sometimes got stuck because I was too bogged down giving equal weight to what a scene should do, where a scene should be located, who should be in a scene, where a scene should take place chronologically in the script, etc.  Being in the room has reminded me that the most important question is what. Once you know what a scene should do, you can figure out where it can/should take place (location and in the script), who has to be in it, etc. It’s a simple lesson, but one that needs to be reinforced over and over again.  Without what a scene should do, the who/where/why is kinda irrelevant.

Mauro:   Being a writers’ assistant helped my writing tremendously because everyday is a masterclass of the process dotted with tidbits of helpful advice passed down from writers rooms over the years.  And I can’t overstate the importance of outlining.  

What was the most valuable thing you took away from your time as a writers’ assistant?

Ed:  Relationships.  Yes, I learned a lot of skills and how the making of a TV show works, but the relationships I’ve formed with the writers and the rest of the production staff is the invaluable part of the job.

Mauro:   It helped me realize that working as a writer is what I want to do, and working as a writer’s assistant helped make the goal feel more attainable. 

Where would you like to see yourself in five years?

Ed:   Fingers crossed, I’m a mid-level drama writer who’s pinching myself whenever I see “written by Ed McCarthy” on TV.

Mauro:   Creating my own Latinx-based shows, but I recognize things often move slowly in Hollywood so if I’m not creating I’ll be extremely happy as a writer for a genre-based or animated TV show.

What other advice do you have for aspiring TV writers looking to get their start as an assistant?

Ed:  If you’re moving to LA, prepare. Moving here with a dream and an empty bank account is rough. Yes, people do it and some succeed, but it’s gonna be hard. Prepare by:

  • Saving as much money as possible. Future you will thank present you if you can buy yourself a few months of living in Los Angeles before you need to panic about money. Instead of money, you can focus on networking, finding potential internships, side gigs, etc.
  • Comb through people you know and see if they by chance know people in LA. You never know who has a random connection. If you can make a connection or two before coming out here, great. You can set up coffees and hit the ground running on day one.
  • There are plenty of Facebook groups out there. Many you need to be invited to and need some industry experience, but some you don’t.
  • If you went to college or a grad program, look into their alumni who live out here. You may be surprised by what you find. Look at the school’s alumni list, LinkedIn, etc. Some people may not want to help, but some will have school spirit and may offer advice.

If you’re already in LA, then hustle, hustle, hustle. Yes, make sure you’re writing, but also make sure you’re meeting people. (And form genuine connections; do not start relationships with pointed questions where it’s clear you want something from the person.)  There are plenty of free events and panels you can go to about TV writing. Also take classes (there are some reasonably priced ones here). You can meet like-minded people and create connections. Start or find a writers group to join. Try to volunteer to help in someone’s production (you’ll learn a lot as a free PA on a short film). Also, write a short yourself and try to make it (it’s daunting but not impossible). Try storytelling events (The Moth has several shows a month).  These are ways to organically expand your creative network.

Also, let people know what your goals are. If a person likes you and understands what you want to do, they may help you if they ever have an opportunity to do so. And, most important, if you’re ever in a position to help someone, do it. Almost everyone who’s made it in this industry did so because someone helped them along the way.

Mauro:   It’s not for everyone but that doesn’t mean you should stop trying to be a TV writer.  If you can skip this step do it because otherwise It’s grueling work, assistants get fired all the time, you’ll probably have to eat a lot of shit, you’ll make mistakes but you’ll also get rewarded, and you won’t technically be considered a writer, but no matter what be kind because you’ll be meeting and working with some talented people everyday and you never know who’s going to help you down the road. 

Ed, you transitioned to TV writing from being a high school English teacher for ten years. What was that experience like for you, transitioning at a later stage in life coming from an already established career path?

Ed:  I’m not gonna lie: it was scary.  When I moved to LA, people said my experience as an educator (plus my MFA in Creative Writing) meant nothing. I had to start from the ground up. I knew this coming here, so I hustled to get an internship (where I was interning with kids ten years younger). I showed people who I was through my work, regardless of how big or small the task someone gave me. People noticed. Over time my social network grew and opportunities presented themselves.

If I am being honest, it’s still scary today, as I can’t shake the feeling of being a little behind my peers. Even though educators don’t make a lot, I made more teaching and it was a stable profession. But I knew I would have turned into that bitter old teacher everyone hates. It wasn’t what I wanted.

I love television, always have. I love creating stories. This would have been my big, regretful what if? question if I hadn’t moved to LA and tried it. 

And though I spent ten years teaching instead of hustling in LA, I wouldn’t trade those years. Those years taught and exposed me to more than anything else in my life. Because of that I’m a better person; because of that my writing is richer and has more to say; because of that I’ll be an asset to a writers’ room as an entry-level writer instead of starting from behind.

To see the other types of TV assistants, click -> HERE

Ed McCarthy is a writer, storyteller, and producer living in Los Angeles.  Recently, he’s been a finalist in Film Independent’s Episodic Lab, a finalist in the Producers Guild of America’s “Make Your Mark” film competition, his pilots have reached the semis in the Cinequest Screenplay Competition and the ScreenCraft Pilot Launch competition, and he was a second rounder three times over in the Austin Film Festival (AMC One-Hour Pilot competition, One-Hour Spec, and Short Screenplay). Currently, he’s the writers’ assistant for the upcoming USA Network drama DARE ME.

More info about Ed can be found here: https://www.ed-mccarthy.com

Ed on Twitter: @EdMcCarthy1 

Mauro Flores is an LA-based writer, illustrator, and Latinx nerd originally from South Texas where he taught High School Theater for three years before pursuing his MFA in Dramatic Writing at NYU.  As a writer, his screenplay Rachel’s Quinceañera was a recipient of the Cinefestival Screenwriting Lab in San Antonio, which had support by the Sundance Writing Labs.  He has also written, produced and/or directed short films and a web series: The Trainee (starring Raul Castillo), Night of the Hipsters (starring Maria Canals-Barrera), and Alma (starring Letty Valladares and Cindy Vela).  And most recently he worked as a Writers’ Assistant on Starz’s VIDA.  

Mauro’s website: http://www.maurofloresjr.com

Mauro’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/maurofloresjr

Kevin

I invented the Frappucino. My dream is to visit Dollywood. Sometimes I host a podcast on writing @ScriptsScribes. Only one of those things is true.
Kevin

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