So you want to be a TV scriptwriter? Then you need to hear from someone who’s been there and doing that. Dave Cantor writes scripts for television. His credits include such BBC sitcom heavyweights as Green, Green Grass and My Family. Dave worked with the great television scriptwriter, John Sullivan, creator of Only Fools and Horses, before John’s death his year.
Dave has also written for Two Pints Of Lager & A Packet Of Crisps (BBC 3) and supplied material for the game show Shooting Stars (BBC 2). He currently has a stage play in development at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre.
Getting work as a writer in television is as difficult and as insecure as most other TV roles but provides the ultimate satisfaction of hearing your words on the screen.
Dave generously agreed to share his story and answer a few questions:
What sort of writing do you do for TV and for which productions?
I write predominantly on sitcoms although I’ve also supplied material for sketch shows, panel shows and am currently trying to develop projects in drama, comedy drama and radio.
How did you get into the business and how did you get your first commission to write something? Do you need particular qualifications to get writing work for TV?
After studying for a degree in Film & Television I started out as a production runner and continued to write in my spare time. I was lucky enough to be running on a sitcom that gave me the opportunity to move up to become a writer’s assistant and then after about a year, a writer – where I got my first commission. At about the same time I managed to secure representation with an agent which helped a lot. While qualifications are useful I certainly don’t think they’re essential at all! Getting experience on television shows, honing your skills in your own time, being around encouraging people and making good contacts are the key things I would say. Certainly in my experience anyway.
How do you go about finding work?
I usually either get in touch with contacts I’ve previously worked with – producers, fellow writers, show runners etc – or my agent lets me know of any opportunities.
How do writing contracts work? Do you get contracted for a certain number of episodes, or number of words or for a particular length of time on a project?
It depends project-by-project really. On a sitcom you’re usually paid a fee per episode although on team written shows (when you’re contributing daily) you can be contracted for months and are paid a weekly table writing fee. With sketch shows and panel shows you’re often paid per sketch or per joke.
As a freelancer do you manage to get a reasonable income by writing alone or do you have to find ways to supplement it?
When I first started I simultaneously filled other production roles to make ends meet. Since then I’ve been fairly lucky in that I haven’t been out of work for too long (touch wood). I think it’s still always advisable to have something else up your sleeve and to manage your finances really carefully, as the barren times will inevitably come. Having supporting parents/family or a partner with a steady income also helps!
Do you have any advice to those wanting to write for TV on how to get themselves noticed, and/or how to approach potential employers?
Sending unsolicited scripts to producers/companies can be pretty futile, whereas if you have an agent’s name attached to your work that will automatically give you more kudos and get your script nearer the top of the pile. Although securing an agent isn’t easy, persistence can still pay off if you send your work to as many of them as possible.
As I said before, working within the industry in other capacities is also a good way to get noticed – whether you want to be a writer, producer, director, or anything else. As well as getting your foot in the door it gives you lots of ‘ins’ straight away. Whether you’re doing work experience for a company, running for them or just making teas and coffees, it’s the first step at least. And the first step is the hardest.
What’s the most challenging or frustrating part of what you do?
Perhaps the insecurity of the profession and going into the ‘unknown’ so often. Living month-by-month and not knowing when your next job is can be very scary. Although saying that, the unpredictability can be strangely exciting. Another fear is the dreaded writer’s block…. which I may have succumbed to during these questions?
What is the most rewarding?
It’s a cliché’ but seeing your work appear on television always gives you a childlike thrill and makes all the negative things I’ve mentioned worthwhile. Writing can be such a private, intimate thing so when something you’ve grafted on alone in a dark room appears in such a public arena it’s a really fulfilling experience.
Thank you, Dave. And if you’re wondering who the big agents are for writers then check out the following and don’t forget to read their submissions policy carefully first before approaching them:
And if you want more information about writing for the BBC then check out the BBC’s Writersroom.