Book Review: The TV Writer’s Workbook

The TV Writer’s Workbook

A Creative Approach to Television Scripts

by Ellen Sanders

In a nutshell: This book offers writing exercises and tips and tricks for writing your first television spec — and what you need to do to become a working television writer.

Recommended for: TV novices who are looking for a creative approach to writing their spec scripts along with writing exercises. Working writers and advanced writers won’t find this useful because it reiterates many of the basics.

I’m going to be upfront here: I had mixed feelings about this book throughout the first half. Probably because I expected the book to be something that it wasn’t (I blame the misleading Kindle sample!) But there are invaluable sections of the book that make it worth your money, unless you’re an advanced writer, and then you’re going to find this book a bore. (Advanced writer: anyone who has written their own TV specs and who already knows the intricacies of the business and how to go about getting a TV job.)

Beginning writers will love it because it’s a fun read packed with tips and tricks to get them started. Also, if you’re wondering what to do once you’ve written a completed spec, this book offers an entire section devoted to explaining what happens next.

Quick note: If any of you don’t know, a television “spec” is a script written on “speculation”: aka you’re looking to get hired off of an episode you wrote for a currently airing television show.

The good:

  • Ellen’s approach to writing television scripts is what makes this book worth the buy. She suggests that writers use the seven deadly sins to craft an episode, which is inventive and it makes sense because writing characters is all about pitting them against their flaws, and then exploiting those flaws for the sake of entertainment. This was an ah-hah! moment for me, and I will definitely be using this method in the future. She also offers up a handful of other tips that help with making the episode connect with you as the writer on a personal writer, which in turn strengthens the episode as a whole.
  • Writing the premise line. By nailing down the concept of an episode into a working premise line (similar to a logline but more for development purposes and not for public consumption) the entire episode becomes easier to write.
  • What NOT to do in a spec. This part is golden if you want to break into television. The spec script is what gets you a job. And you have to do it right!
  • The difference between a treatment and outline. The book also glosses over some of the documents you will be required to hand in and get approved in order to write your episode. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go as in-depth into the behind-the-scenes process of how TV writing works, but it does offer a good glimpse into the kind of system you’ll be working in if you choose to write for a TV show.
  • How to pitch. There are some phenomenal tips in here, like bring an expensive pen and never bring your own water bottle. Seriously, when you hear Ellen’s guide about how to pitch (along with a pitching horror story!) you’ll feel better prepared. Also, I’m adding another pitch-preperation tip to my to-do list: take an improv class.

The questionable:

  • The basics. I think the reason I found myself skimming most of this book is the fact that most if it is simply the basic rules of storytelling. Show don’t tell. Central character must have a goal. Use strong verbs. Central character must resolve the story. All of this is important to know, don’t get me wrong, but once again this is why the book seems to be geared toward beginner writers. This is fine, it’s just something readers should know going in.
  • The proposed way of approaching story structure. The story she tells writers to use is broken down like this: “OH,” “The little uh oh!” “Ouch!” “The Big Uh Oh!” “The Twist-a-Roo!” and so on. I can see how something this simple appeals to beginner writers who want a simplistic story structure to grab onto, but it’s kind of… juvenile. I would be okay if this structure came and went for one chapter, but it kept coming back every few pages or so. Also, I kept imagining somebody using this structure while giving notes. “You know, I don’t think your twist-a-roo is strong enough, you should go back and strengthen your oh and little uh-oh…

In conclusion, this book is a great way to jump into the craft of episodic television writing and master skills like delivering exposition in an interesting way and going from an outline to a completed script.

Takeaway: Each story you write should come from a personal place. When it matters to you, the story will be stronger and your passion will shine through. Writing what you know can apply to more than knowledge of a career or location: it can also apply to an emotion or a situation you’ve found yourself in.

Takeaway #2: (Because I’m feeling generous today!) The author mentions an excellent point in the last section. She says that the writers room is all about pitching ideas and having the confidence to contribute to the discussion. So if you aren’t someone who enjoys this kind of team environment, then being a TV writer may not be the career for you.


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