Education and Training: Varies—see profile
Salary: Varies—see profile
Employment Outlook: Good
Definition and Nature of the Work
Scriptwriters are skilled writers who prepare scripts for commercials, soap operas, comedies, and dramas that appear on television, in films, and on stage.
One type of scriptwriter, known as the continuity writer, creates station announcements, previews of coming shows, and advertising copy for local sponsors. These editors may also write material for locally produced shows. They must be able to write persuasively, creatively, and quickly because of the pressure of deadlines.
Writing for television is quite different from writing scripts for films or stage plays. Broadcasting scriptwriters must be able to write "to order"—for a certain audience, to fill a certain time slot. It can be almost a technical job to turn out exactly thirty-five pages of double-spaced dialogue every day. Most importantly, the writer must tailor the script to the time of day the show appears on the air; scripts for shows that air at ten o'clock in the morning are different from those that air at ten o'clock at night or even four o'clock in the afternoon. The writer may also be working as part of a team under a head writer who makes many of the creative decisions. In television broadcasting, writing what the show calls for under a strict timetable is often more important than artistic expression.
Writers who want fewer restrictions on their artistic freedom tend to write for motion pictures or for the stage. Working with an agent, motion picture writers may submit an original screenplay to a motion picture producer or studio, or they may negotiate for the job of turning a novel or play into a screenplay. Playwrights hire agents to submit their plays for performance, or they may try to get their work published in book form. Although the rewards are lucrative, competition is keen in these fields. There are few highly successful playwrights or screenplay writers.
In all cases, scriptwriters must be able to imagine the effect of their words when they are spoken in a production. It is not enough that the words look good on paper—they must work well when one actor is speaking to another actor. Whereas a playwright usually includes only a few stage directions, a movie or television scriptwriter may detail the visuals as well as the written dialogue. These details are particularly important in movies, where a long and important sequence may require no speaking parts at all.
Some scriptwriters work full time for motion picture studios, television stations, and radio stations. Many scriptwriters, including playwrights, work freelance on a job-by-job basis. Even freelance playwrights may be asked to attend rehearsals to help rewrite any lines the actors find difficult.
Education and Training Requirements
There are no set educational requirements for scriptwriters, although a college degree is preferred. Candidates must be able to express ideas clearly, create believable characters, and develop a compelling story.
Many schools offer courses in writing for television, movies, and the theater. In these courses, talented beginning writers are taught certain technical skills such as writing convincing dialogue and creating interesting and plausible plots.
Getting the Job
An excellent way for prospective scriptwriters to find out about the world of show business is to subscribe to Variety or Back Stage. Candidates should also stay up-to-date on film and television trends by reading fan magazines and entertainment blogs, which tell all about the actors, writers, and plots of various shows.
The large movie and television studios in New York and Hollywood usually find new scripts and scriptwriters through agents. Beginning scriptwriters can obtain a list of reputable agents through the Association of Authors' Representatives.
Writers who show promise in a course in scriptwriting may be able to get their work performed locally. Writing instructors can offer guidance in submitting works to local stations or to publishers of plays. Students can mail in sample scripts along with a letter to the script editor describing themselves, their background, and their work. Persistence and good writing are the keys to success.
Sample scripts may be written in the form of an original episode for an already successful series; sometimes, though, students invent their own plot and characters. When candidates' works are purchased, they must then join the Writers Guild of America. Playwrights join the Dramatists Guild. There are no special requirements to join; these guilds are "open" unions and almost all scriptwriters belong to one or the other.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
There will be good opportunities for scriptwriters through the year 2014. Networks and production companies are always looking for a first-rate script; however, scriptwriting and continuity writing are somewhat limited fields. Competition is very intense as many people submit manuscripts to movie and television studios. New opportunities may arise as network television and cable television stations continue to create their own programming.
Like most writers, scriptwriters usually have the freedom to write when and where they choose, provided they meet their deadlines. Those who write for a television series or who are under contract to a motion picture company may share writing duties with others. They may attend script conferences where guidelines are set and may be very busy for several weeks while the shows are being prepared. When the shows are done, they can relax for a while; however, the pressure is seldom off freelance writers, particularly if they are trying to earn their living solely by writing. Stamina and persistence are very important for a successful freelance career writing for stage, television, or motion pictures.
Earnings and Benefits
The Writers Guild of America sets the fees for scripts. On television networks, staff writers may earn between $2,000 and $5,000 per week. The script for a two-hour television program can fetch more than $50,000.
In the motion picture industry, salaries for scriptwriters vary widely. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary of a scriptwriter is $44,350. Popular and successful writers can command extremely high salaries, often ranging between $100,000 and $600,000 per script. Screenplays for low-budget films bring in less money. Sometimes writers negotiate for a percentage of the movie profits (called a royalty).
Playwrights usually draw royalties on work published in book form and also receive a percentage of box office receipts. Playwrights are protected by the Dramatists Guild, which sets professional standards and guarantees authors' rights.
Where to Go for More Information
Association of Authors' Representatives
676A 9th Ave., Ste. 312
New York, NY 10036
1501 Broadway, Ste. 701
New York, NY 10036
424 W. 44th St.
New York, NY 10036
Screenwriters Federation of America
4337 Marina City Dr., Ste. 1141
Marina del Ray, CA 90292
The majority of scriptwriters are self-employed and therefore must provide their own benefits.