5 Pieces of TV Writing Career Advice to Live By
As a young African-American television writer from the South Side of Chicago, the question I frequently get is: What advice can you offer to another writer? I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by a number of veterans in the industry, and many of them have shared a ton of knowledge about how to sustain in a marketplace that is always shifting. Here are five pieces of advice that I live and strive by:
Make sure you're ready when your big break comes!
1. If you’re not in the mood to write, you better be doing something creative.
About a year ago, I went to a writer’s panel hosted by the WGA Committee of Black Writers and one of the panelists, Pat Charles (Black Lightning, Bones, Sons of Anarchy), said something that really stuck with me: “If you can’t write, read. If you can’t read, watch. If you can’t watch, listen.” This piece of advice is for everyone. There are some days when I wake up and want to do anything except write, especially when I’m staffed on a show. Writing can drain you creatively – as many art forms do – so it’s important to give yourself the time not to write, though it is just as important to not let any day pass you by without consuming something creative. The input is just as important as the output.
2. I schedule every (writing) minute, including when it’s due.
I meet a lot of writers who don’t write when they aren’t staffed on a show, and the biggest excuse is usually lack of time. Ironic, right? So, one of the most helpful things I do when I’m working on a script has been to create a writing schedule. I use a basic Microsoft Word table to plan when my outline, first draft, second draft, and third draft need to be complete. (Sometimes I would go so far as to send my schedule to my agent so that someone was holding me accountable.) I work backwards in my calendar and plan how much writing I want to do each and every day. Some days it’s one hour at home, other days it’s five hours at a café.
3. Know who you’re asking for notes.
I appreciate and value notes on my work as much as the next self-aware writer, but don’t take every single note from every person willing to give them. Now, this is not me saying to just ignore notes or not even ask for them – don’t be that person. Always consider notes because someone will say something or spark an idea that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise, and that’s when the magic happens. The key is to sort through the good and bad notes, though. To me, a “good note” is something that helps me create the best version of my story – this can be character work, clarifying a plot point, or even restructuring the plot. But sometimes, other writers will give you notes based on what they would do with a project. How they would tell the story. But, it’s not their story. A note should help you reach your definitive work, not theirs. No one knows your story the way you do.
4. Focus on yourself and yourself only.
There’s a reason that runners are taught to never look over at their opponents when they’re running a race. Always look forward, or you might trip and fall. The same should be true in every part of life, but especially in entertainment. One of the biggest mistakes we can make as artists is worrying about when someone else’s career seemingly takes off. It’s only natural to compare yourself with your perceived “competition,” but it’s also a distraction. Keep running your race and keep your eyes on the finish line – it’s a marathon, not a sprint. And when it’s your time, it’s your time.
5. Work until you can’t.
Simply put, nothing is ever “done.” Keep perfecting that sample. You never know – something that you thought would only be a sample could turn into your first piece of paid development. So, ask yourself: Are all of my characters being serviced? Are their individual voices clear? Is there anything I can do to clarify anyone’s intentions? Also, keep writing new samples that showcase different aspects of your point of view and your experiences. My former agent, whom I adore, always says that young writers should have at least one new sample per year. That’s the bare minimum. You never want to have someone willing to read your work and you have nothing new to showcase. A wasted opportunity is a shame.
Kendra Chanae Chapman is a TV writer and producer from Chicago, IL. She is currently living and working in Los Angeles. Kendra is known for her work on Emergence (ABC) and Designated Survivor (Netflix). Follow Kendra on IG: @KendraChanaeChapman and on Twitter: @No_CantEatThat
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