The Spec on Specs
By Briana Hansen
It’s that time of year again. That special exciting time where words like “contest deadlines,” “competitions,” “workshops,” and “fellowships” are buzzing around. And there’s another word inevitably thrown out there in the midst of conversations on all these … specs.
So we thought it might be appropriate to discuss (mis)conceptions and questions that always seem to circulate around the elusive spec script.
First and foremost... What the heck is a spec script?
So glad you asked.
For anyone wondering at home, “spec” is shorthand for “speculative.” Technically, anytime you’re writing anything of your own volition and you haven’t been hired to do so, you’re writing a spec script. People will sometimes call it “writing on spec” rather than “writing a spec,” but it’s essentially the same idea. For most writers, much of your portfolio (especially before you’re represented by an agent or manager) is entirely made up of spec scripts.
The other (and arguably more common) way people refer to writing a spec is when they’re talking about writing an episode of an existing TV show that is already on the air. Almost like fan fiction for screenwriters - only you’ll actually want to show it to people! Though the technical definition is more all-encompassing, anytime you hear people discussing writing a spec script or requiring a spec script for a fellowship, they’re almost always referring to that type of script. (But if you’re ever asked to write a new project “on spec,” now you’ll understand the difference and what that expectation is.)
Why even write a spec?
Lots of reasons!
Specs used to be pretty standard expectations in any writer’s portfolio, not to mention common requests in fellowship and competition applications. It wasn’t too long ago that a standout spec script could translate to real-life writing work. But over the past few years, they seem to have disappeared almost entirely. There’s been a shift away from spec scripts and more interest has been placed on original works that showcase a strength you can bring to the writers’ room.
But there are still a handful of organizations that may request a spec. And it’s still excellent practice for any aspiring screenwriter – especially if you want to work in TV.
For example, the WB Writers’ Workshop is an excellent opportunity for emerging writing talent. They still very much expect, request, and require writers who apply to have spec scripts available. And they do so for very good reasons.
I chatted with Rebecca Windsor, the Director of the Warner Bros. Television Workshop, about spec scripts, their value, and why their workshop will keep them in rotation for the foreseeable future.
Windsor explains, “The most important job of a staff writer is to write in their showrunner’s voice, so we need to see that people can do that. And not everybody can. It’s really important when we’re reading that we see if they’re mimicking that voice, the tone, the jokes the character tells, the nuances. Even some of the language choices of different shows are really important to capture. If you can’t do that, you really fail the job of what it is to be a staff writer.”
Spec scripts don’t only offer a chance to show you can write in a particular voice. Windsor adds that they also are one of the ways she and her counterparts at the WB Workshop can help weed through the huge numbers of submissions they get every year.
If someone doesn’t have a spec, if the spec is improperly formatted, or if there’s some other glaring structural element to the spec script, that submission isn’t considered. She explains, “We want to see at the bare minimum can you accomplish the task you’ll be asked to do when you get the job.”
Of course, the major challenge of writing a spec script is still properly expressing your unique writer’s voice while also staying true to the existing show’s voice. Some people might argue that the best way to really express that is through unique work based on original ideas. But for Windsor and other proponents of the spec script, there are plenty of ways that your spec can show off your style.
“First and foremost, it has to feel like the show. It needs to be good writing at its minimum. The best specs are the ones that the writer can also infuse who they are as a writer into it.” she says.
You can get really creative in many ways in your spec script that show off your voice, style, and creativity. As long as the structure and overall show tone are there, you have plenty of leeway to play.
In terms of choosing which show you want to write a spec on, the Warner Bros. workshop releases the list of accepted shows early in January (long before their applications open in May). If you’re specifically writing a spec for a fellowship but don’t yet know what will be accepted, the best bet is to choose a popular show that has already been renewed. And, ideally, a show you like that you’re up-to-date on. This will help keep you from repeating an already existing storyline and hopefully allow you to be more effective in staying true to the show’s tone.
Plus, it can actually be a lot of fun!
Do I have to?
Nope. You don’t. But it’s helpful.
And, at the end of the day, it’s highly unlikely that your first TV writing job in Hollywood will be selling your original pilot. It’s not impossible, but spec scripts can be helpful to set yourself up for success. Many writers first spend time as staff writers to better get the mechanics of writing on a TV show and to improve their own skills. Often, from there, you may branch out. But as an emerging writer, it’s a really good idea to understand the value of a spec and to be able to show off your own abilities within it.
Now, armed with that knowledge, get back to writing!