What Do You Do?

Words, not what, from long ago

A friend of ours is a Biochemical Geneticist.  That’s a very impressive job title, don’t you think?  When you hear it, your first reaction is, “She must be smart.”  And then, if you’re like me, you wonder what a Biochemical Geneticist does all day.  I’ve asked her about that a time or two and I think I have the general idea, but I certainly wouldn’t be able to step right in and fill her shoes if a biochemical and/or genetic emergency arose.  I’d know enough to put on rubber gloves, but after that I’d be stumped.

There are other occupations that don’t require much explanation.  If someone tells you they’re a realtor or a fireman, your next question probably isn’t, “what the heck is that?”  When I became a television writer, I assumed my job description was similarly obvious.  Turns out I was mistaken.

At some function at which a bunch of strangers were attempting to make small talk, a guy asked me the inevitable, “So what do you do?”  “I’m a television writer,” I replied.  “Oh,” he responded, “You write the words, or what?”  I’ve often wondered what he thought “or what” might include.  I imagine myself saying, “Yes, I write the ‘or what’.  Specifically, I write the elegant costumes the actors wear.”  But the truth is, I specialized in writing words.

I’ve also been asked on several occasions if I just write for one character on a show.  People who ask this evidently assume that I was responsible for putting words in the mouth of, say, Colonel Potter, while another wrote exclusively for Hawkeye, someone else thought up clever remarks for Father Mulcahy, etc.

It is true that there are multiple writers on every television show and that there is a good deal of collaboration involved, but at some point a writer (or two) goes off and turns out a script.  Alone.  That script includes not only the words that all of the actors are supposed to say, but brief descriptions of the action as well.  It’s necessary, for example, to indicate that Cliff walks into the bar before you have him start talking.  And all of these words are supposed to mesh in such a way that they tell an entertaining story.

Once the script is submitted, the other writers offer suggestions for improvements, and many changes to the original are made during the production week.  For some reason, the altered pages of the script are printed and distributed to cast and crew on different-colored paper.  Every show has its own pattern for that, but it’s usually something like: original pages are white, first revision pages are blue, and second revision is pink.  Pages that undergo a third revision might be green.  It’s been a while, but I recall that sometimes even more colors were used; by the time pages were printed on goldenrod, the writer of the original script was sighing deeply and shaking his head in despair at having chosen this career.

That may be more than you care to know about the mechanics of television writing, but if you run into a TV writer at some gathering, now you won’t have to ask whether they write the words or the what.  Oh, and if you’re ever in one of those awkward social situations and find yourself talking to a meteorologist, do me a favor and ask him or her why meteorologists study weather and not — excuse me — meteors!?  I’d love to hear what they say about that.  Are they just trying to confuse us, or what?

2 responses to “What Do You Do?

  1. Harrison Stephens

    Writers, I believe, are held in rather high repute by the public–except for journalists (guilty), whose rating is just above California legsislators, who in turn are at about the level of flashers. However, the high opinion of writers is not world-wide. Hugh Mulligan, an AP columnist, spent some time in Ireland exploring his roots. When he returned, he said in Ireland a writer is considered a failed conversationalist.

  2. Great post. There’s not a writer alive who hasn’t been asked those questions. But after reading your article I was left with one question of my own. Do you mean to tell us that you walked into TV writer’s rooms WITHOUT putting on rubber gloves?! You’re a brave soul, Tom Reeder.

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