Shaquayla Mims shares lessons learned from her first writers’ room experience in this column unpacking topics from Writer Twitter.
Written by Shaquayla Mims
When I got the call to be a staff writer on the second season of a breakout TV show, I felt validated. Years of writing (and rewriting), reading countless scripts and screenwriting books, studying hours of TV and film, and scrounging up money for writing contests and networking events had amounted to something BIG. Something my parents could finally understand: getting a check in the mail.
- Virtual vs. in-person rooms are drastically different. You have to be intentional about connecting with the other writers.
- It’s OK if a pitch doesn’t land. It still helps you get insight into why your pitch didn’t work so you can make a better pitch next time.
- Talking too little vs. too much. LISTEN more than you talk so whatever you’re adding to the conversation, it’s worth speaking up about or pitching. When you get hired, ask your showrunner if they expect you to pitch or not, and what you can help with.
- Know your shit. If you hear anything in a room you’ve never heard before, whether it’s a term or something pertaining to story: LOOK IT UP. Research is KEY to being a staff writer.
- Step up to stand out. As a staff writer, your main job is supporting the room/making the showrunner’s job easier. So, for example, if a senior writer mentions they need to look up something/need clarity—do it for them. The best way to stand out in a room is to work your ass off, and be enthusiastic about it.
- Don’t underestimate the power of rest and water. Being in a room is mentally draining—no matter how awesome the room is or how much you love your job. Even when you’re giving your all to your work, you can’t neglect yourself.
- Send thank-you notes. Send thank-you notes when your room wraps and let everyone know what you learned from them. Someone can be a coworker one day, and a reference the next day.
Turn your assignments in ON TIME. NOT EARLY, because that means you thought your work was so good you didn’t need the extra time to look it over/punch it up. Take the time! And NOT LATE because you’re holding someone else up from doing their job.
Working in my first writers’ room was the scariest dream come true. The other writers were all dope for different reasons, and I was obsessed. I had a new tribe. Right away, I could tell that there was something special about this group of people. I wanted to learn more about everyone, but it was hard to genuinely connect. We had stories to break and scripts to write. We had work to do!
If I wanted to bond with my coworkers, and learn how to navigate the room, I had to be intentional.
In an in-person writers’ room, you can take advantage of watercooler conversations and midday lunches to bond. In a virtual writers’ room, your best bet for side conversation is the private chat on Zoom. And even then, it’s a distraction at best and a potential landmine at worst. (All I’ll say is: Always double check to make sure you’re messaging the intended person, and not the entire writers’ room. Just, trust me on this.)
When the writers would speak on things we had in common, or things we didn’t, I took mental notes. I set up Zoom or FaceTime calls to get to know each writer offline. Some writers I naturally clicked with, based on our personalities or backgrounds, so I met with them first and worked my way through the room.
With each call I learned something new about the people I was working with, got clarity on how a writers’ room operates, and started to build relationships. The room felt safer because the writers weren’t complete strangers to me anymore. And I needed that because the first few months in the room **whispers** I struggled with “imposter syndrome.”
Being in the room felt like playing double dutch at times, and I am not that coordinated. It was hard to gauge when to jump in and when to sit out. There were times when I would jump into the conversation and fall flat on my face when a pitch didn’t land. Or, I’d stay on mute, paralyzed by the fear of making a fool of myself and saying something stupid.
Then one day a story editor sent me a direct message on Zoom. “Get out of your head, and into the room.” That’s all it read. I sent back an apology for making a bad pitch that morning. She replied, “I guarantee you no one is thinking about that.”
An epiphany bomb exploded inside of me: there’s an “I” in writing, but there’s no “I” in team.
Working in a writers’ room is a team sport, but I had a single-player mindset. I had to make an adjustment. Instead of looking for opportunities to shine, I had to find moments to support my team.
One of the best ways a staff writer can excel in a writers’ room is to make everyone else’s job easier. When breaking story gets hard, people like easy. I didn’t wait to be asked to do something. If the showrunner mentioned a particular tracking document would be helpful for the room, I created it. If another writer had a pitch but needed more research to support it, I pulled the information together and sent it to them. If I had a pitch, I thought it through before blurting it out. (There’s a difference between pitching with purpose and pitching to prop yourself up. Trust me.)
That’s when the magic happened. The more time I spent helping everyone else, the less time I spent second-guessing myself. I wasn’t an imposter. I was an asset.
And before I knew it, I was burnt out. Halfway through our season it got difficult for me to pay attention, practice gratitude, have patience, give grace, be flexible about changes, and even write. The room was great. The issue was me and my lack of self-care/work-life balance. I wasn’t drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, or eating enough SNICKERS before I turned into a hangry Betty White.
My passion for our room was still high, but my creativity stalled. I hit a wall. Ran out of gas. Flamed out. And shut down. I slept for like two days. That’s not a restart. That’s a reset.
Standing out in a writers’ room starts with self-care. I learned that lesson the hard way but that was some good sleep. No regrets.