Write for TV: 5 Tips to Choose the Perfect Show to Spec

by Naomi Beaty - updated on September 16, 2019

With the number of exciting shows only continuing to grow, who doesn't dream of writing for TV these days? If you're among the aspiring screenwriters aiming for the small screen, one thing you may be thinking about is writing a TV spec.

What is a TV spec?

In the feature world when we say “spec script” we’re referring to any script written on spec, or “speculation.” So, basically, every script you write as an aspirant, before there’s a paycheck or some sort of contract involved.

In the TV world, usually what is meant by “spec” is a sample episode of an existing TV series. Yes, you’ll probably write a pilot on spec too, if you’re an aspiring TV writer. Let's not question that too much; the vernacular of the industry is what it is:

  • “spec” or “TV spec” to mean “an episode of an existing TV show, written on spec”
  • “pilot” or “spec pilot” to mean “an original TV pilot, written on spec”

Clear? Great.

Do you have a pilot that needs to be read? Enter the ScreenCraft Pilot Launch TV Script Competition here.

What is the purpose of a TV spec?

Unlike feature specs, TV specs are not written to be sold. There is practically zero chance that Modern Family script you poured your soul into will ever become an actual episode of the series. That’s not the point.

You write a TV spec to prove that you can write an episode of someone else’s show. Since that’s the job of being a TV writer.

Most TV staff writers work on shows they didn’t create, obviously. They collaborate in the room, coming up with ideas within the purview someone else’s story universe. They write episodes featuring characters and exploiting concepts that came from another writer’s brain.

As an aspiring TV writer, you are doing the same thing – just without the paycheck. Writing spec episodes helps you hone the skillset you need to become a paid TV writer. And having good samples in your portfolio shows agents, managers, and showrunners that you possess that skillset.

Now, specs have fallen somewhat out of favor in the recent past. There are many reps and showrunners who only want to read original pilots. But writing a spec is still time well spent, since it is building your skill as a TV writer. And, there are some situations that call for specs specifically. Including --

Fellowship season

Several networks and organizations offer fellowships for up-and-coming TV writers, including CBS, Warner Bros., ABC, NBC, CAPE, and the NHMC. These programs are designed to provide instruction and mentorship, and are a great way to break into the industry.

There’s stiff competition for these fellowships, and most require you to submit a TV spec with your application.

>> Related: TV Fellowship Season Survival Guide

So if you want to apply, you need to write a spec. But which one? If you’re an aspiring TV writer, you probably love TV. Meaning, you probably watch a lot of it (right?). So how do you narrow down the options?

5 things to consider when choosing which show to spec

1. Which shows do you love?

It’s true: your genuine enthusiasm for what you’re writing will show up on the page. Also, choosing a show that features a world, characters, and other elements you really love will make it easier to give your spec episode all the time and attention it needs to become a winning sample.

2. Which shows are you allowed to write?

Each fellowship application has its own rules and restrictions, so it’s a good idea to check their individual sites to make sure you’re not working on a script that’s ineligible. For instance, they may insist that a specced show be in its second season (or have at least been ordered for a second season).

3. Which shows are likely to have legs?

It’s a good idea to also think about how long your spec will remain a viable sample. Once a show ends for good, there’s a very limited time frame in which you can still use a spec episode of the show as a writing sample. And fellowships may not accept scripts of shows that are no longer currently airing new episodes (no, those Friends reruns don’t count). So you want to think about the shows you’re considering, and look at how long they’ve already been on the air, and how long they’re likely to continue.

4. Which shows align with your brand?

What kind of TV writer do you want to be? These days that goes beyond “half-hour comedy” or “one-hour drama”. With so many content platforms now, the options fall along more of a spectrum rather than two definitive camps.

You probably have a comfort zone – a writing happy place -- somewhere on that spectrum. That zone contains the kinds of shows you want to be staffed on, and you'll want to choose a show to spec from within that zone. Or at least a show that shares some qualities in common with shows in that zone, and that will allow your writing strengths and passions to shine.

Say you’re an aspiring TV writer named Shonda Rhimes. You want to spec a TV show, and you know you love to write sexy dramas with strong female characters. (And let’s pretend this is present day, okay?) The shows you might consider could be The Affair, Madam Secretary, The Americans, or even UnReal.

Think beyond drama and comedy labels and consider genre characteristics, target audience, tone, and the personal themes you tend to explore in your writing, to help you narrow in on the ideal show to spec.

5. Which show pairs with your pilot?

Your writing portfolio should contain several samples, not just one. And as a whole it should represent you well as a writer. You’ll undoubtedly have an original pilot in that portfolio (or at least one you're planning to write), so consider speccing a show that pairs well with it. For instance, say your original pilot is an edgier, nontraditional comedy like Master of None. Maybe you want to spec a show that demonstrates your range and ability to write for more mainstream audiences, but still explores some of the same themes. You might consider Fresh Off the Boat or The New Girl, or maybe even The Good Place.

Take some time to brainstorm all the possibilities, then use these tips to narrow the field. And when in doubt? Refer back to #1. Because writing something you can't get truly excited about only makes the job that much harder.

With those things in mind, which shows will you be speccing this year?

>> Related: Thriving in the Room: Advice from Staffed Writers

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