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My job explained: Screenwriter

Screenwriter for programmes including Shaun The Sheep, Horrid Henry and 4 O’Clock Club, Dan Berlinka tells the story of his career so far. Read on to find out more.

Can you tell us a bit about your job?

I write scripts for television programmes - mostly children's.  I write a mixture of live action and animation, mostly as a ‘writer for hire’ on existing shows, though I do also develop my own ideas. Right now I'm working on an original comedy pilot for the BBC.

Can you describe a typical working day?

Procrastination and lots of it – and every writer is the same.  You check your emails, Facebook, Twitter and finally, when there's nothing new to read or respond to, you actually start writing a bit. Typically, I'll be writing two or three scripts at any one time, so I'll be working on whichever has the tightest deadline.  TV script writing usually goes in three phases. There’s the outline, which is the basics of the story, scene by scene, which is a detailed plan of the whole episode, and the script.  A lot of my work involves coming up with story ideas - and if it's a long running series it may be difficult to come up with something they haven't already done - though on a serial I sometimes get given a plot to work with.   

Why did you choose to be a screenwriter?

In some ways it chose me - although I did always enjoy writing.  I actually started out working in TV production - in wrestling! I later found myself in the Original Programme Development departments at Sky and Disney, before becoming a partner in Dandy Productions, a company formed by me and a Disney friend and colleague. Writing was always part of my job and I would occasionally write scripts as part of the development process.  Eventually I'd built up enough samples to get an agent and began writing full time.    

What qualifications do you have?

I have a BA in English and an MA in Cinema Studies - but neither are really relevant to what I do. Studying was good for my confidence and for analytical skills, but they had no real bearing on my work as a writer and I know very successful writers who left school at 16. Writing is like singing or drawing - you either can or you can't. That's not to say you don't learn and improve as you go on, but the basic talent has to be there. You also have to love it since you couldn't do it if you didn't enjoy it!

What other skills do you need?

You need people skills because you often have meetings which are like auditions for writing on shows.  You also need a thick skin because there is a lot of criticism and rejection along the way and you need to be organised to meet your deadlines.

What’s the best bit of your job?

Seeing something on screen that's turned out well and thinking ‘I wrote that - I gave those characters those words they’re saying.’  Or sometimes, you write something and you just KNOW it's good - in fact it's so good that you let yourself take the rest of the afternoon off. 

What’s the most challenging bit of your job?

The insecurity - both financial and emotional.

Was it hard to get your first job?

No - but that's because I drifted into it almost by accident.

What advice would you have for people who want to follow in your footsteps?

Read a lot.  Watch a lot.  Write a lot.  Don't put your faith in all those How To Write books. Maybe read one or two - they won't do you any harm - but after that learn the basic rules for formatting a script correctly and then start writing. 

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