How to Learn on Set without Anyone Actually Teaching You

This article is an excerpt from Neil Landau’s new book, TV Writing On Demand: Creating Great Content in the Digital Era. The book has rave reviews from the likes of Issa Rae (Writer/Producer/Actress, Insecure) and Damon Lindelof (Writer/Producer, Lost, The Leftovers). Learn more and pick up your copy on Amazon.

by Neil Landau (@Neilland)

There’s a paradox in the writers’ room—and if you’ve read my books, you know how much I love paradox when it comes to characters.

In the writers’ room, you need to absorb information and find your own way through observing how other people behave. Read draft after draft to understand how they evolve and come up: from that early writer’s draft through network notes and the process of refinement. If you get an opportunity to go on a location scout or to sit in on a music spotting, color correction, or editing session, take advantage of it. Just sit there and absorb.

Don’t make the big mistake I made.

I remember one of the times I was invited into the editing room on Melrose Place. I was arrogant, young, and stupid enough to think that since I’d written the episode and was invited, that I was on an equal playing field with everybody else. It was a huge mistake. I even contradicted one of our executive producers about something. It was bad form; I just didn’t know.

If only someone had said, “By the way, you need to have a seat and observe and listen and learn,” I would have kept my mouth shut. It was entirely my fault, and I should have paid better attention to the successful writers around me instead of being cocky. But, as we all know, although hindsight is a wonderful thing, foresight is better (William Blake).

So not only do you need to learn to do things without people teaching them to you, you also have to be smart, politically savvy, and diplomatic enough to know when to keep your mouth shut and when to open it. You need to learn, not only how to write for a given show, but also how to read a room. Painful lesson learned.

What I should have done—which I can recommend to you—is say, “I take it that I’m here to observe and learn. If you’d like me to participate, please let me know. Tell me what’s appropriate.” That’s a good question to ask on staff, because if you just assume things, you can alienate people and commit career suicide without even being aware that you’ve done anything wrong.

Ideally, mentorship should naturally emerge in a writers’ room from a hierarchy. It behooves them and the show for the more seasoned people to take the new writers under their wings, mentor, and explain things as needed. On some shows, in some writers’ rooms, that does happen. But more often than not, people have their own scripts to write, their own problems, personal lives, and multiple projects. You’re not necessarily a responsibility they want. They want you to come in, be low maintenance, fend for yourself, not get in the way and be a professional.

That means being a humble listener and a humble learner, and that’s how you learn without anybody actually teaching you anything.

~

Neil Landau is a bestselling author, producer and award-winning screenwriter who runs the Writing for Television program in the UCLA Department of Film, Television and Digital Media (his alma mater). Credits include Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s DeadMelrose PlaceThe Magnificent SevenDoogie Howser, M.D.The Secret World of Alex MackTwice in a Lifetime, MTV’s Undressed and one-hour drama pilots for CBS, ABC, Freeform, Warner Bros., Disney, Lifetime and Fremantle. Neil penned the bestselling 101 Things I Learned in Film SchoolThe Screenwriter’s RoadmapThe TV Showrunner’s Roadmap and TV Outside the Box: Trailblazing in the Digital Television Revolution, which was the first book sponsored by the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE).

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