What Is the Career Description of a Script Writer?
by Mark Heidelberger
Script writers are responsible for authoring the dialog and action for media of all types, from film and television to stage plays and online how-to videos. While such positions can be highly competitive due to the creative freedom and lucrative paydays involved, individuals determined to pursue a script writing career will find there isn't just one "write" way to go.
The most common form of script writing (also called screenwriting in the case of film production) is the creation of original material not based on any pre-existing works. Original scripts can be written on a speculative basis (also known as spec scripts), where you choose the subject matter, story and all key elements, write the script, and then try to find a buyer for it after it's completed. The script can also be written as a work-for-hire, where an employer such as a television network or ad agency pays you for the work and therefore owns the resulting product.
Adapted scripts are based on some sort of pre-existing source material – usually another form of media. You can adapt scripts from poems, novels, biographies, comic books, stage plays, or even other film and television programs. In order to write and sell an adapted script without violating copyright laws, you must first secure any rights associated with the story and characters you wish to write about. This may include buying the "life rights" to an interesting real world person or adaptation rights to a mystery book series from its author.
Rewriting is a required step in all forms of writing, and script writing is no different. In fact, some script writers enjoy very fruitful careers doing nothing but rewrites of other people's work. Writers who do significant amounts of rewriting to a work but take no credit are called ghost writers. You must be hired by the script's owner to do the rewrites, whether it’s the original author or a third party, such as a movie studio. Such assignments typically entail a high skill level since you are expected to identify and address problems in the works of others.
The feature film and television industries offer the most abundant opportunities for script writers. Television alone employs many different types, from daytime drama staffers to movie-of-the-week writers to copywriters for on-air promotions and station announcements. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) exists as a resource for these professional script writers, setting salary minimums and arbitrating credit disputes among other things. Advertising is also a major employment sector. Ad agencies hire copywriters to create radio and television commercial scripts based on their marketing directives. Writers with a background in advertising are more likely to advance in this area.
You must have creative sensibilities and a knack for generating ideas that translate into compelling visuals. A strong imagination and clever way with words goes a long way. When working for others, you must be good with time management, as you will usually be given a deadline. You should be a self-motivator who can get work done without supervision. Moreover, you must be highly collaborative and able to accept constructive criticism, whether from a co-writer, producer or studio executive.
Salary & Outlook
The constant need for entertainment and advertising means script writer jobs will be in demand for the foreseeable future. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, writer jobs are projected to increase 6 percent through 2020, from 145,900 to 155,400. The 2010 median salary for all writers was $55,420. Those in motion pictures and advertising fared much better at about $62,000 annually, while those in radio and television made slightly less with $53,400. WGA scale rates for feature scripts as of May 2013 ranged from $66,151 on low-budget productions to $124,190 on high ones.