by Marla White
I hear this question all the time from writers and see so many posts about it on line – “Is writing a spec script a waste of my time?”
The short answer – no.
The longer answer – OMFG, I don’t understand what the debate over writing spec scripts is even about!! Seriously, if you want to become a television writer, you’re going to need to write spec scripts – yes, plural!
Here’s why –
First, let’s all be clear about what we’re talking about when using the term “spec script”. The simplest definition offered by the balance is, “Spec is short for the speculative script. It technically refers to something you wrote on speculation (sometimes referred to as “wrote on spec”) – which really means that you wrote the script for free.” So any script your aren’t paid for, whether it’s an original idea or not, is a spec.
BUT what most people mean when they refer to writing a spec script is writing an episode of an existing show without getting paid for it and knowing you never will.
I’ve seen and heard a lot of people vehemently argue it’s a waste of time for any writer to write an episode of an existing show. To them I politely say “hooey”.
Here’s why they’re wrong --
Writing sample for staffing:
If you want to be considered to be hired on the staff of any show, there is a chance the producer or showrunner will want to see a sample that proves you can adapt your voice to reflect the tone and voice of someone else’s show. This isn’t always the case, but sometimes they’ll only consider it.
Or, a more likely scenario, your original sample doesn’t match up exactly with the tone of the show you want to get hired on. For instance, when we did “Outsiders” it was hard to find originals in that tone, so I had to read a lot of procedurals instead. It’s hard telling from reading a sample so unlike our tone who would be a good fit; if I’d had some spec scripts of even procedural shows, I would have felt more confident bringing those writers in for a meeting because I could see they could emulate the showrunner’s voice.
TV Writer Fellowship and Writing Programs:
There are a number of opportunities for young writers to get mentored and in some cases even paid and almost all of these programs are going to require a spec script of an existing TV show as part of the application process. Most programs have a list of acceptable shows so check to be sure which ones are approved before you start writing.
(Here’s a pretty comprehensive list of those programs from the TVscriptdoctor’s blog, but it is from a few years back so you’ll want to check out the programs you’re interested in to be sure the details are still current.)
Because you’re allegedly a writer:
Hopefully, you’ve decided to become a television writer because… hmm, I don’t know – YOU LIKE WRITING. Writing episodes of someone else’s show is going to be what a big chunk, if not your entire career, is going to be about so why NOT do it now?
One of the best ways to get better at it – and presumably you want to continue honing your craft and not just stagnate – is to study shows on television and figure out what makes them tick. Shows you like, show you hate, study them all and that means writing your own episodes of them.
What NOT to do with your spec script:
Don’t ever send a spec of an existing show to that show’s producer or production office as a sample or as a pitch for them to buy your idea. Legally, it opens up too many issues and it doesn’t put you in the best light.
Now get out there and start writing!