Writing Fellowships: The Wins and the Lessons
March 1, 2021
I’d hate to open this article with a big cliché, but here goes (deal with it): It’s no secret how competitive this industry is. For those starting out, the ladder you’re climbing can feel pretty crowded at the bottom. If the objective is to summit, sometimes we need the leg-ups, the boosts, and the insurance policies so that when momentum is in our favor, we maximize it. For those pursuing a career in TV writing, screenwriting fellowships offer that extra push at better placement on the ladder. There is still no guarantee that you’ll make it to the top, but at least now the wind’s direction has changed and it’s actually helping you climb rungs.
I’ll preface with a lame disclaimer: YMMV. Writing fellowships — the ones run by networks and studios (not screenwriting competitions) — are filling 8-10 spots out of thousands of applicants. In 2019, I applied to several and was offered zero interviews. In 2020, in the midst of Covid, I had three lined up with CBS, NBC and Disney. I was ultimately offered (and accepted) a slot with NBC's Writers on the Verge. After the gauntlet of applications, being called in for an interview is a huge victory in itself and I know that some of you reading these words will celebrate this achievement for yourselves. And if you make it through the interview process and are invited to the program, the system truly has the ability to change your career trajectory. I was able to leverage that fellowship victory into securing management— as you can imagine, NBC’s name carries weight. For me, it was also the first time my South Asian parents seemed to really “get it.” To them, suddenly writing felt like a viable career path. A fellowship can open doors in terms of getting to meet upper level writers, showrunners, and development execs. They can also introduce you to incredible, hardworking, passionate human beings who also made the cut. If you’re lucky like me, these cohort members will feel more like long-lost soulmates. They can become life-long friends, even in a year where the workshops are entirely virtual.
So what happened between my 2019 and 2020 application attempts that resulted in such vastly different outcomes? The two main components were material and preparation. Material meaning the scripts, obviously, but as you may have heard, the essays and supplementals are equally as important. They are arguably your deciding factors and tie-breakers for landing that interview. Preparation becomes crucial to start positioning yourself outside the 90% of applications. You basically have three opportunities to stand out: have killer scripts, crush those essays, and wow them during your face-to-face. It really takes all three and comes down to the prep work you do.
I scavenged for podcasts and online interviews with those who run the fellowships (they’re not hard to find). There is so much to gain from hearing the network reps break down their ideal candidates, sharing insights, do’s and don’ts, etc. These programs can change annually in terms of application criteria and curriculum, so the more clued in you are from those operating behind the scenes, the stronger position you’ll be in. Some programs ask for original material only, while others will request a spec of an existing show. Voice is crucial but remember, in a spec they also want to see if you can mimic a showrunner’s voice — that’s part of the job description as a staff writer and the spec script is designed to showcase that.
Whichever route you go, one key component that the judges look for is your ability to share a compelling story. It should be clear and prevalent in not just your scripts, but your essays, too. Can you communicate in a way that is engaging and also gives them nuggets of information about you, your personality, and your voice? Ultimately, the essays are designed to underline your talents as a scribe and prove your value in a writers room. Are you an asset when it comes to staffing? What experiences do you have to contribute to their TV shows? It doesn't mean you have to have lived an “extraordinary life;” your take on things will still be wholly unique. The more you can demonstrate that in your bio and essays in a way that is colorful, meaningful and compelling, the more desirable you become. Can you convey all the things you want to in a short prompt with a word limit? Maybe not — but everyone else is in the same boat. Your goal at this stage is to secure an interview. That’s all.
Liz Thompson has a fantastic series in which she discusses mining personal gold (and more fantastic tips) for application essays. If you’re applying to several programs, you will run into the option of recycling material from one application to another — and technically there’s no harm in that. You’ll find common threads in your own narrative that were stated near-perfectly the first time. By all means Ctrl+C that. In my case, I made a conscious attempt to tailor each submission to the script I provided. Ideally, the essays and your original script should feel like they came from the same writer. They should paint a vivid picture of who you are and what you’re about. They should excite the judges at the prospect of meeting you. Whatever you do, make sure your teleplays are in fantastic shape. Proofread them multiple times. But also be prepared to find a mistake only once you hit submit. At the end of the day, we’re still human.
As you contemplate these prompts, my final piece of advice is to not shy away from vulnerability. I don’t mean sell them on a tragic tale that shows you can write about grief. Nor am I saying you need to convert your life’s trauma into some literary performance. But do try to harness genuine emotional truth within your writing. Nobody wants to milk a tragedy to get ahead. But if it taught you something in the process, perhaps it’s worth sharing. I used to wonder whether my lived experiences were enough to fuel a screenplay (let alone several). I found that the underlying emotion of those experiences is sometimes much more powerful. We are empathic creatures. On a fundamental level, tying emotion to our material is precisely “writing what we know.”
Last but not least, please do not be discouraged if the interview doesn’t happen. Know that you may have killer material but the reader on the other end still may not connect with it. Every year is another chance and at the end of the day, there’s more than one road forward in this industry. If you get the sit-down meeting but don’t advance beyond that, take the time to celebrate the close call. It’s still huge! Learn from it if you can. And if you do get accepted, this could be a career-defining moment for you — stay gracious and preserve a willingness to help your peers. It’s our responsibility to hold the ladder just a little bit more steady for the next person climbing up.
Written by: Hussain PiraniBorn in Karachi and raised in Austin, Hussain is a storyteller with over a decade of experience directing short films, documentaries, and commercials. After studying both Film and Psychology at the University of Texas, he started out in casting and spent nine months canvassing the U.S. for Terrence Malick’s Oscar-nominated THE TREE OF LIFE. Over the past 10 years, he has traveled globally as a filmmaker, shooting in places like Tokyo, Budapest, and the Peruvian Amazon. In 2018, Hussain relocated to Los Angeles and attended UCLA’s Professional Program for screenwriting. Drawing from his immigrant experience, he writes grounded dramas steeped in genre that explore themes of family, identity, and social oppression. His pilots have placed in Script Pipeline, Austin Film Festival, and Final Draft’s Big Break among other contests. In addition to being selected for NBC's Writers on the Verge in 2020, Hussain was a semifinalist for Disney's Television Writing Program and a finalist for the CBS Writers Mentoring Program. He is repped by Bellevue Productions.