Writers Talking Writing: TV Writer Shonda Rhimes’s Tips to Lay Track

Lessons on Life from a TV Writer

Earlier this year, I listened to the audiobook for Shonda Rhimes’s Year of Yes, a successful and interesting TV writer with decades of experience (if you don’t know who she is.) In this mix of memoir and self-help advice, both funny and touching, Rhimes shares her wisdom about how to embrace personal growth and new opportunities.

You must open your mind to new opportunities and experiences in order to overcome stagnation and truly grow. Nothing new will happen to you if you don’t say “yes” to anything new. If you want to break free from the constraints of the familiar and mundane, Rhimes argues, you must be open to the unknown.

The book is particularly relatable for writers, mothers, and Black women—and even if you are not all of those things, you may be able to relate to her clear and insightful revelations about her experiences as an introvert. I could relate! I understood exactly what she was talking about when she said she was fine fading into the background, although she obviously had a larger-than-life personality.

Lay Track like a TV Writer

One striking metaphor Rhimes employs in the book compares writing for successful TV shows to laying down train tracks, and even non-TV writers can relate. Shonda describes how she knew the train was coming; the production schedule must run on time. She details her intense feelings of pressure to keep the schedule on track. She knows she can be flattened by that train.

To help her maintain focus and meet her writing goals (while avoiding being overwhelmed by industry demands), Rhimes lays out 6 tips on “how to lay track” as a TV writer. Even if you’re not a writer for a big, successful TV series (or three!), try these out to see if they can help you be more focused and productive in your own writing process.

  1. Establish a routine. A daily routine provides structure and can help you stay disciplined, focused, and productive. Designate times to complete your writing, whether you write for a specific period of time or until you reach a certain word count; it’s the consistency of sitting down to write at the same time that can help.
  2. Set clear deadlines. Clear, nonnegotiable deadlines create a sense of urgency and can help motivate you to meet your goals. In the case that you’re working on a collaborative project (like a TV show), deadlines for yourself will help you do your part to ensure everyone’s timelines stay on track.
  3. Say “no.” It can be difficult, of course, because we want to say “yes” to all the good, entertaining, pleasing things in our lives—like time with family and indulging in trips to restaurants and other places away from our desks—but if those opportunities are not aligned with your goals, they can derail your focus. To meet your deadlines, you will have to say “no” to some things and prioritize your work.
  4. Embrace productive procrastination. To be at your most creative, you need the space to brainstorm and think, so not all procrastination is bad procrastination. Sometimes, letting your mind wander allows you to come up with something great, new, and creative. So allow yourself to take a break if it helps you be your creative best.
  5. Accountability. Do you have a team that holds you accountable? Or even just one single “accountability-buddy”? Get one. Whether it’s your partner, your kids, your colleagues, or the rest of your writing team, use the power of positive peer pressure to help you make steady progress and deliver on your commitments.
  6. Create a dedicated workspace. This should be a sort of “sacred” writing space for you. A space where you can be your most productive, feel free to think, and that helps you envision yourself as a successful, competent, productive writer. Set up an area that helps you feel comfortable, but not too relaxed, and ready to work.

In addition to these tips on how to successfully lay track in your writing, Rhimes also discusses some of the less glamorous aspects of being a TV writer, such as the eye strain (and necessary eye care for writers) that comes from staring at a screen for long hours and the weight gain that can occur if you maintain a sedentary lifestyle and don’t balance laying track in your writing with actual movement of your body. And in all her discussions about these real-world writerly topics, Rhimes remains funny as hell.

More Life Lessons

If you’re not familiar with Rhimes’s work, do yourself a favor and try this book on for size. You’ll find some heartwarming lessons about navigating physical, mental, and emotional challenges, particularly those faced by a successful TV writer. No matter what other self-help books you’ve read, you’ll find in Year of Yes an inspirational message about embracing your own paths of growth and self-love.

Are you a TV writer ready to talk to an editor?

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