Career Advice

5 Productivity Tips from TV’s Top Showrunners

By Spenser Davis September 11th, 2014

We don’t always think about it in the midst of a twelve-hour Netflix binge-watching session, but TV shows—even the bad ones—take a tremendous amount of creative work.

Showrunners have to be some of the most organized and productive writers on the planet. Often they come up with the idea for the show and are charged with keeping everything and everyone on the same page. And although writing may be their passion, their presence is firmly rooted in the business, promotional, and technical aspects of any project. If there’s any job that’s similar to that of a showrunner, it’s the freelance writer (albeit for slightly different salaries).

We’ve compiled a few tips from some of the best in the business on how they stay productive:

Write With Your Gut: Vince Gilligan, “Breaking Bad”

It helps that I’m not reading what folks are saying online.The best thing to do, as a showrunner, is to please yourself. Maybe the obvious choice is the right one sometimes.

One of the beauties of freelancing is the freedom to do what’s best, to write how you think you should write. Of course you have to please your clients, but you don’t always have to please your critics and can stick to artistic principles regardless of how many people run theirs mouths in the comments section.

Embrace Your Laziness: Dan Harmon, “Community”

The best thing that you can do for yourself is to find that thing that you like to do and try to turn it into your job.

For some freelancers, it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning to work on projects you absolutely dread. Often, freelancers experience laziness for that reason—it’s not that they don’t want to do anything—it’s that they don’t want to do that job they dread just for some quick cash. Harmon talks about embracing your laziness and harnessing it into a positive force by finding those projects that make you want to get out of bed in the morning.

Study Seriously: Mike Schur, “Parks & Recreation” & “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”

If you’re an NFL quarterback, you watch a lot of games on film, and if you’re a comedy writer you have to watch a lot of game film—you have to watch comedy, read comedy, write about comedy. You have to treat it as seriously as if you’re a law student studying for the bar exam.

One of the essential parts of being a writer is being a serious reader. No matter what genre you prefer, reading voraciously is extremely important. You might not need a degree to write—but you should analyze the written word just like if you were a student. Reading gives you a deep understand of what works, and your own writing will benefit.

Always Question Your Wheel: Beau Willimon, “House of Cards”

There’s a rebellious nature to all of us on the creative side. So I think that often times that paradigmatic shift, it’s as much by accident or ignorance as it is by design. Because you don’t know the way the game is supposed to be played you just make up your own rules.

Freelance writers, like TV showrunners, are in a rare position to experiment and question the conventions of their work. The occasionally swashbuckling nature of freelancing means you don’t always have to answer to the status quo; you answer to yourself (and your editor). Tired of writing in the same style? Flip it upside down, turn it inside out, take it apart and rebuild it with only the best pieces.

Protect Your Writing Time: Lena Dunham, “Girls”

I have to really guard and cherish my writing time, because there are so many other demands on it. There are a lot of other areas of interest for me, but writing time is where everything comes from. I have to make sure to be really careful with it. It’s hard for me.

The life of a freelancer involves necessary self-employment duties that are a hindrance to the actual writing process. Research, pitching, answering emails, and maintaining a website need to get done, but the writing part is by far the most important. Make an effort to set aside time for each project, as well as any personal writing, so that you give each thing its proper focus and energy.

Image by Dan Steinberg
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