Recently we wrote an article extolling the positives in working as an assistant in television as a potential pathway to the writers’ room. It can be beneficial in many ways, from learning the business of writing and creating television to developing strong relationships with writers, producers and showrunners. This time we interviewed some assistants that had made the jump to actual TV writer from the assistant ranks. Ally Seibert is a former showrunner’s assistant whose last position was as a co-producer on the ABC show THE ROOKIE and Adam Scott Weissman is currently a writers’ assistant on the ABC medical drama THE GOOD DOCTOR who has been hired to write freelance episodes for some of the shows that he’s worked on and sold a pilot to the CW.
Q: What was the first job you had in the industry and how did you get it?
Ally Seibert: My first paid job was at CAA working for Ted Miller (co-head of scripted TV and head of international). I happened to see a vague job posting from one of those mass emails that go out to assistant groups. My intern boss actually told me he thought it was a waste of time based on the post, but I applied anyway. It turned out to be for the head of TV News and Sports at CAA. I came in second, but since I had been brought in through a back door and had already been through HR, they put me up with Ted. I ended up getting the job. It was definitely the better fit anyway, but total trial by fire.
Adam Scott Weissman: I was the writer’s PA on CSI:NY. I got the job thanks to Trey Callaway, who was my professor at USC and a Co-Executive Producer on CSI:NY at the time. Since then, I’ve worked with Trey on a number of other shows and development projects.
Q: Ally, you were formerly a showrunner’s assistant, but have since earned a position as a TV writer. What was the process of pitching and getting read as an assistant like? How did you get hired for your first writing assignment?
Ally: Honestly, I was extremely lucky. It’s hard to be taken seriously since it seems like everyone wants to write, but because of my time at CAA, I had a good reputation with a number of upcoming agents and established agents. When I felt like the sample was good enough, I reached out to the agents I still had a good relationship with. Because they already knew me, they took me seriously and were interested in bringing me and my writing partner on. I think the biggest takeaway of being read is knowing when to use your connections. People are generous, but I wanted to be the person who asked for a favor once.
CAA put us up for a position at Chicago Fire. It was our first staffing meeting (insane, I know). The showrunner liked our script, but I also know he talked to some upper level writers who knew us. They vouched for us and that really helped. We basically watched as many episodes as we could and found a lot of things that we connected with. We enjoyed the show and stressed how excited we were to learn and how hard we were willing to work. It was amazing that they were willing to take a chance on us.
Q: While you haven’t been staffed yet Adam, you do have some “written by” / freelance episode writing credits. What was the process of pitching and getting read as an assistant like? How did you get hired for your first writing assignment?
Adam: I wrote an episode of CSI:NY and more recently an episode of Proven Innocent. The process was different on each show. On CSI:NY, all the assistants were invited to pitch episodes, and two were selected, including an episode that I pitched and co-wrote with Tim Dragga, who was the Writers Assistant; I was assistant to the Co-EP’s at the time. On Proven Innocent, we had a very collaborative room and process, and throughout the season, I was able to contribute creatively to quite a few of the episodes, so the showrunner (Adam Armus) and the other executive producer/writers (Danny Strong and David Elliot) decided I should co-write an episode, and I was chosen to co-write episode 811: “Shaken” (just aired this Friday on Fox!).
Q: What is it like being an assistant on a show and getting to write an episode? How difficult is it to do both jobs at the same time?
Adam: As an assistant who gets the opportunity to write an episode, my goal is always to make sure that the showrunner and writers don’t feel like they had to pay a price for giving me that opportunity. First and foremost, that means working twice as hard and writing just as well as any writer on staff. It also means taking and executing all notes graciously and without pushback. Finally, it means making sure that your duties as an assistant are not neglected. So if you have to take room notes while breaking your own episode, you do it. If you have to answer the showrunner’s phone while writing pages on your own script, you do it. If you have to stay at the office until 2 in the morning to get it all done (and you will), you do it. But this is also where the relationships you’ve built with the other assistants in your office come into play, because you’ll have to ask them to help you out while you’re stretched thin. If you’re a Writers Assistant and you get a script, you can ask the Writers PA to take a step up and take notes on the break of the next story while you’re working on pages or in a prep meeting. If you’re a showrunner’s assistant and you get a script, you can ask the script coordinator to cover your phones or take notes on a network call while you’re in the room breaking your episode.
Q: How many, and what kind, of writing samples should an aspiring TV writer ideally have?
Ally: Honestly, something that you truly love. I definitely believe that readers can tell when the writer either has a personal connection to their story or truly loves the genre they’re writing in. I think the biggest mistake is when people try and conform their writing to whatever they think is ‘hot’. Don’t write an action zombie piece if you’d rather write for a character drama. Seems straightforward, but I’ve seen many young writers make that mistake. Regarding quantity, I’d say never stop writing. The more samples, the stronger you’ll be with a wider range. I personally aim to have two that can showcase my different ‘sides’. That said, one really strong sample can get you a lot of work.
Adam: If you want to get staffed on the show you’re working on as an assistant, it’s a good idea to have a pilot that has a similar tone and/or is in the same genre as the show you’re working on. As a general rule, you should always be working on a new TV pilot script. If you’re on a show, it may take you a long time to finish your sample. You may not have the time to write every day, but you should always be working toward the goal of finishing your next script. You should always have a great pilot ready to show to anyone who wants to read you. It’s great to have feature samples as well, and there are still showrunners who like spec scripts (and you’ll need those to apply to the network fellowships); if you’re a playwright or a novelist, those can help too, but a great pilot is the most important.
Q: What were the most important experiences you took away from your time as a showrunner’s assistant that really helped once you joined a writing staff?
Ally: Overseeing the entire process. The best part about being a showrunner’s assistant is that you see EVERYTHING. It’s a great way to gather information and hear how shows are made from start to finish. It also puts you in touch with a lot of people since you’re dealing with everyone from production, the studio, network, agencies…etc. I’d always go out of my way to try and learn as much as I could about other positions, even if I had no interest in actually doing the job. It’s definitely helped me now that I’m more involved with producing.
Q: What were the most important experiences you took away from your time as a writers’ assistant that helped you in terms of pitching and the process of writing an episode?
Adam: Learning to read the room. I paid very close attention to how every writer in the room reacted to different types of story pitches and how they reacted when certain people spoke. I tried to calibrate my pitches so they would be the type that got the most positive responses from the right people. A very smart TV writer told me that when you write for television, you’re writing for an audience of one: the showrunner. Especially as a low level writer or an assistant who gets the opportunity to write, your job is to help the showrunner realize his/her vision, and everything you pitch and write should be in service of helping him/her achieve that. Additionally, there’s a cardinal rule of TV writers rooms that you never point out a problem unless you have a solution. If you’re lower level, I’d take that a step further and say never point out a problem, only provide solutions.
Q: Having both been an assistant on a TV show and getting hired to write for TV, what are a few things you think aspiring writers should know that isn’t taught in a screenwriting class or gleaned from a book?
Ally: If you’re an assistant trying to make the jump, anything that goes above and beyond to help writers is noticed and remembered. It sounds simple, but even something as simple as making a character grid is appreciated. Writers are often involved in recommending assistants for jobs on new shows or for replacements and they definitely have a say in convincing the showrunner to give out freelances. As a young writer in the room, don’t be afraid to ask for help, but also listen. Every writer remembers what it feels like to be young and new and more than likely, they’re willing to help. But paying attention to how rooms work and understanding the right time to interject or contribute is also key.
Adam: Most books and classes teach you nothing about the real-life production process. Before you work on a TV show, you should teach yourself how to read a call sheet, a one-liner, and a production schedule. You should understand what every single person on the crew does so that you know who to talk to about any issue that might come up. Writing on an actual show as opposed to writing specs, you will also learn how to limit cast and locations for budgetary reasons, and how to write scripts that play to the strengths and accommodate the weaknesses of a particular crew or cast.
Q: Sometimes a writer is asked to repeat as a staff writer for more than one season. You’ve been able to not only stay employed, Ally, but rise through the ranks earning promotions up to the co-producer level so far. How have you managed to continue your rise through the writing and producing ranks of a TV staff?
Ally: Yes, unfortunately I’ve known quite a few writers who have been held back at certain levels. In terms of getting promoted, I’d like to think our credits help. We’ve been lucky enough to write two episodes every season and be on shows that have 20 episodes or more. When negotiating, I think that gave our agents a lot of bargaining power. I’ve also found that it just depends on who you’re working for. But at the end of the day, the more work you’re willing to put in and the more you put yourself out there – it all helps.
Q: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Ally: Hopefully still writing! In an ideal world, I will have sold a show. Even if it’s not made, I’d love to get into the development game. And possibly film.
Adam: Writing and producing television shows!
Q: What final advice do you have for aspiring TV writers?
Ally: Keep writing. I know it’s exhausting (I used to work a bunch of 24/7 type assistant jobs), but finding time to write and improve is everything. A lot of showrunners like to see aspiring writers make that jump, but the work has to be there for them to back you.
Adam: Always be ready for the day when someone asks to read your work, and always be ready for when they ask you, “What else have you got?” Always have an answer ready for two questions: “What kind of stuff do you like to write?” and “What are you watching?”
Ally Seibert is a writer and producer working in Hollywood after ignoring all of her family and friend’s advice. Currently, she works on ABC’s The Rookie, but has previously written for Hawaii 5-0 and Chicago Fire. In addition to writing, her accomplishments include keeping five plants alive for a total of six days (so far), axe throwing, and moving into a two-bedroom apartment.
Ally on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ally_seibert
Ally on iMDB: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm4939330/
Adam Scott Weissman is currently the writers assistant on THE GOOD DOCTOR. He worked previously as the writers assistant on Fox’s PROVEN INNOCENT, showrunner’s assistant on Fox’s APB, executive assistant on CSI:NY, and director’s assistant on SONS OF ANARCHY. He has co-written episodes of CSI:NY and PROVEN INNOCENT, sold a pilot to the CW, and wrote the independent feature film A DEADLY OBSESSION.
Adam on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ASWeissman
Adam’s writing on Nikki Finke’s Hollywood Dementia: