7 minute read


Job Titles: Writer; Executive Story Editor

Job Overview

For a one-hour episodic television series, the story editor has a number of duties; some specific, some more loosely designed. On Walker, Texas Ranger, executive story editor Duke Sandefur worked with other writers, developing and constructing stories before they went to teleplay. Then, he rewrote scripts for production. “Writing for production is a little like cutting crystal in a mudslide,” Sandefur explains. “Sometimes, it's a trophy. Other times, you wind up with broken glass and mud.

“There are a lot of practical concerns that arise before and during production that call for rapid rewrites on-the-fly. A little rainstorm or an injured actor can cause a sequence to be totally reconstructed in a matter of hours. Personally, I love that kind of work. It's fast and exciting and entails the same kind of deadlines one finds in newspaper journalism. I work best under pressure.”

Special Skills

“It's worth noting,” says Sandefur, “there are two skills one needs for writing prose that one does not need for writing screenplay: spelling and punctuation. There are machines that spell for you. That part's taken care of. And as to punctuation, the most important thing is to write the way people speak. People generally do not punctuate or spell very well when they speak. Listen to some of David Mamet's dialogue and tell me how it should be punctuated on paper. Good luck! As far as education … read a book on screenwriting, any book. Pick one; they all contain the basic formats and conventions of screenplay. It also helps to take a class, because it will force you to write and you can't learn this stuff without actually writing. Talking about writing doesn't get it done. You don't have to go to college and major in film and television to write a screenplay. Many successful professional writers I know started off doing something quite different. My 10-year-old son says he wants to be a writer. I told him to learn how to build bridges first.”

Advice for Someone Seeking This Job

“Write,” says Sandefur. “Secondly, don't stop writing. Lastly, finish each thing you start. If you don't finish, it doesn't count. It's like sailing halfway across the Atlantic. Glub! It's like playing 17 holes of golf. It's like drinking three beers out of a six-pack. If you build a house without a roof, it still won't hold water. Just finish, no matter what. Then go on to the next thing. But finish! Get some produced scripts. Some scripts have been published and are available in bookstores. I think you can even buy scripts on eBay. Read them. Copy a format or a style you like. If you can't think of anyone to copy at first, find a script by William Goldman. Goldman is a screenwriter's screenwriter.”

Professional Profile: Duke Sandefur, Writer

“When I was about five years old, I was watching Bonanza with my father in the basement. He was a dentist at the time in Indiana. I can't quote him, but he ventured that he could probably write that show. Next thing I know, we're moving to Hollywood. And damned if he didn't wind up writing a lot of Bonanza episodes (and decades of television material since). He took a screenwriting class at Hollywood High School and was off to the races.”

The elder Sandefur's first gig was the result of persistence. “He wrote a story for Bonanza and gave it to the story editor (I believe that was John Hawkins's title at the time) at the Paramount gate. John was the first to arrive every day and the last to leave some days. He considered my father a nuisance at first, but read the material. After several exchanges in the early morning hours—my dad handing in revised material and John giving him notes—John finally invited my father inside and bought a story. John taught my father a lot … and later, taught me a lot. He was a great man.

“We eventually settled in Studio City, almost in the shadow of Universal Studios. From the beginning, I read what my father wrote. I learned the craft and conventions of screenplay from a man who was also learning. His primary life advice for me at the time was: ‘Do whatever you want to do, but I won't support you if you choose dentistry.’

“I went to a few colleges and majored in everything from physics to ‘undeclared’ before I settled on television and film. In hindsight, I should have majored in anything else. Technologies such as nonlinear digital editing have made much of my formal education mostly obsolete.

“One of my early writing classes required writing a teleplay. I figured that if I were going to write a teleplay, I was absolutely going to try to sell [it]. So, I picked a target … There was a series getting underway called Spider-Man and I had a passing acquaintance with two guys on the show: Bob Janes and Ron Satlof. I wrote an episode in about five days and handed it in to my instructor. I also got a copy to Bob Janes … I sold the episode. I failed the class. Go figure.”

Over the next few years, Sandefur studied at “some of your better colleges in Southern California” and worked as a freelance writer, before accepting his first staff job in the series Enos. “Every job is a milestone. Jobs are few and writers are many, and it's getting more and more competitive, especially in one-hour episodic. When I began, television was dominated by one-hour dramas. It was relatively easy to get a pitch meeting. With the advent of half-hour comedy and reality programming, the number of one-hour dramas has been greatly reduced and it's not such an open market.

“If I had to pick one job that meant the most … I'd have to say it was an episode I did for Little House on the Prairie: A New Beginning. At the time, I was pretty young and I'd sort of given up on writing as a career. But there was a true story from my life that I wanted to tell and it fit with Little House. Don Balluck [Little House executive story consultant], a good friend and a great writer who has since passed away, was open to a pitch, so I told him my story. In short order, I had an assignment and wrote the script. It turned out to be a very rewarding experience and helped refocus my energies. I never looked back after that.”

With a renewed interest in screenwriting, Sandefur worked on a number of television shows, picking up odd episodes here and there, rewriting or polishing existing material, and creating screenplays of his own. He worked regularly on The Rockford Files, Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, and other series. He served as script consultant on the crime drama Dark Justice, writing ten episodes himself and co-writing a two-hour movie.

What do you like least about your job?

“Beginning. ‘Fade In:’ is the hardest thing to write. The blank page is potentially one's best friend, but also an enemy to be feared.”Duke Sandefur

What do you love most about your job?

“Finishing. ‘Fade out’ is the easiest and most rewarding thing to write. Finishing is where the satisfaction is.

“Wait … suddenly I'm thinking of lots of things I love about my work. The flexible hours (often called ‘unemployment’ or the preferred ‘hiatus') are great. As a freelancer, I don't clock in, I don't hit a key without my morning coffee, and if I feel a compelling need to go fishing, I do. Staff work is more rewarding in this regard because it's task oriented. You get to finish a lot more often.”Duke Sandefur

He served as executive story editor on the high action series Soldier of Fortune, Inc., producer Jerry Bruckheimer's first venture into television. “Working for Jerry Bruckheimer was a lot of fun because he demanded big action. Soldier of Fortune is notable because it gave me the largest explosion I ever got. They blew up an old sewage treatment plant—it was spectacular.”

After the show was cancelled he returned to freelance writing, then served as executive story editor for the final season of Walker, Texas Ranger, and resumed work on speculative scripts and other freelance work.

“If I had to list all the people who have helped me or contributed to my career in one way or another, we'd need another forum and much more space. But I'd be remiss if I didn't mention John Hawkins, a mentor to my mentors. He was a very skilled and unselfish writer and I miss him very much. I learned an awful lot from him about writing and life.


* “My father told me very early: ‘Don't tell me what you want to betell me what you want to do!'” With that advice in mind, Sandefur tells people, “I write.”

* “It's importantno, it's criticalto listen to people speak. Like fingerprints, there are no two speech patterns that are the same. Characters should always have a unique voice of their own, and it helps immensely to be able to remember bits of speech from life. Stealing from yourself, from your memories, is a huge part of writing, especially in dialogue. Dar Williams wrote it in a song:’ … stealing from myself, it's what I do …’“Duke Sandefur

* [Finishing a script is] “like gestating a baby, then throwing it to wolves. If one is on staff, then one plays the role of the wolf too.”Duke Sandefur

“I don't know that I ever wanted to be a writer. The craft was something I learned, partly by exposure and osmosis. To be truthful, writing chose me more than the other way around. I did it because I knew how to do it and I knew one could make a pretty good living at it. Finally, in the last few years, I've come to love it. I really wouldn't want to do anything else.”

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCareers in Film and TelevisionWRITERS - Job Title: Writer/producer, Job Titles: Writer; Executive Story Editor, Job Title: Screenwriter, Writer