Screenwriting Secrets by John Scott Lewinski

Screenwriting Secrets » Writer's Assistant: Apprentice or Grunt?

Hollywood is full of aspiring writers. Every one of them thinks he or she has that one great spec script inside them that will kick in the studio doors and allow them to quit their jobs making copies in the mailroom or slinging java at Starbucks.

In reality, writers need to pay their dues in Hollywood like every other entertainment industry professional -- unless they have a famous relative tucked away somewhere in the business. Baby writers usually need to gain experience in the different aspects of Hollywood writing and marketing before they can execute a top-shelf script. But, how do they get that kind of insight while busting their ink-stained tails to keep body and soul together?

One of the most direct routes to that insider's scoop is grabbing a job as a writer's assistant to an already established film or TV writer. An assistant gets to play a small part in the creative process while watching over a veteran writer's shoulder as big-time Hollywood marches by.

What exactly does a writer's assistant do? It depends on the writer employing the assistant. Duties can range from interesting creative tasks and involvement to clerical tasks to personal business. It's all based on how the writer hands his or her work and life.

The most interesting and challenging duties a writer's assistant can hope for are revisions and research. The latter is obvious. If a screenwriter is making six or seven figures per script, writing time is money -- a lot of money. It's much easier for that writer to pay someone else to examine historical texts, list types of modern weapons or discover if this week's script title has ever been used before.

As far as revisions go, don't think "creative." Think "saving the writer work." When the A-list writer performs a script revision, he or she is pulling down a hefty check to rewrite a screenplay. As a writing assistant, when you perform revisions for that writer, you're catching typos, misspellings or continuity errors.

In some cases with older writers, revision means conquering the veteran writer's technophobia. Some current screenwriters on the tail end of their careers came into the business composing their work on typewriters. Some even wrote their first drafts by hand and let someone from the studio typing pool or a "Kelly Girl" bang it into script format. Writer's assistants are this era's answer to the typing pool. They may write their scripts in some old-fashioned form and ask you to type them into the computer.

When older writers look at a Mac or PC screen and see word processing software like MS Word or WordPerfect (or even specific screenwriting programs like Final Draft or Scriptware), they may need you to make sense of it for them. Do it -- quickly! You'll spare the wizened scribe a mild emotional attack, and you'll save yourself the story of how, in the old days, you didn't need these new-fangled computers to write a picture...and how the writer used to walk to the studio in the snow every day, uphill, both ways, etc.

Some of a writer's assistant duties can stretch into the clerical realm. You could be asked to sit on meetings to take notes from studio execs. Or, if they tape the meeting, you might have to transcribe the notes. That allows the screenwriter to think on his or her feet -- and to look important in front of the studio execs. They all have assistants, and if a writer wants to be a player, he or she has to have one, too! Whether or not you want one when you make your break is entirely up to you.

If a writer is working on a single spec or writing on assignment, a writer's assistant's life can prove fairly smooth. However, more often than not, a writer is working on multiple projects. Any one of a number of stories in various stages of development could be submitted all around town. It's often the assistant's job to track all those submissions to make sure the right title and correct draft goes to the right producer.

In some rare, dreaded cases, a writer's assistant's duties slide into the sordid realm of personal assistant duties. The jobs are separate, and in a perfect world, they stay that way. Still, on occasion, even the most skilled writer's assistant will be asked to make a delivery, order lunch or pick up a Prozac prescription.

Those duties can be a blow to an educated assistant's fragile go, but perform them anyway. Consider them favors for someone helping you to pay your bills. If you're taking care of more personal business than creative, then you may wish to look for a new gig.

So, a writer's assistant position is a true "pay your dues" sort of gig. But, what's in it for you -- besides a paycheck ranging from $10 to $15 per hour? Hopefully, you can pick up some vital first-hand education on how the industry really works. An assistantship allows the young writer to watch the slings and arrows of writing for Hollywood from the battle's sidelines without having to wield a weapon before he or she is ready It's sort of like playing squire to the established writer's knight.

You can pick up insight on the draft and revision process, the pitch routine, writing on assignment and the screenwriting marketplace. You can also prepare yourself for some of the less pleasant aspects of professional screenwriting, such as dealing with impatient, inconsistent producers and the endless mill of studio notes.

If your boss likes you (which is never a given if you consider how temperamental writers can be), he or she might be willing to read your work and refer it to producers and agents looking for new talent. But, don't fool yourself. No writer will take bread off his or her table so they can give your career a break. You will get the crumbs the established writer doesn't want, but those are crumbs you probably can't eat now without such an opportunity.

Finally, if you end up working for a writer you admire, you may find inspiration or technique in his or her craft that improves your own screenplays. No writer's assistant holds such a job for the sheer joy of assisting! You take the support role in hope that will lead to your own writing opportunities down the road. If you're lucky enough to fall in with a writer willing to serve as a mentor on the side, the job might just make you a better writer.

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