Writing Deadlines: Hit or Miss?

Would deadlines make me a better juggler?

At the moment I have several writing things on the go at once. There is a piece which urgently needs a final edit doing on it; there is a later piece that is still in rough form and needs quite a bit of knocking into shape before I can start to think about really editing it to completion but which needs to be out of the way before the end of the coming summer if it is not to get in the way of other things I want to write; there is a longish article to be composed out of various notes and fragments of information that are currently half-organised under a number of headings – which I have committed to producing ‘sometime quite soon’; there are two blogs each of which really should have a new bit of content posting on them ‘sooner rather than later’; there is an article on contemporary art but that is at the initial stages and requires a lot of reading to be done before I even know what shape it will take; there is a piece that exists as scraps of paper in a box file, a small stack of books with strips of paper marking various pages, and a number of ideas I my head; … and so on.

Having been a planner/developer as a career I have an outline plan of which things will be done, roughly when they will be done by, some tentative completion dates for each, and a broad sense of the time I need to spend on each to move them on. Do I need more than that? Would I benefit from some strict deadlines? Would deadlines help me juggle the variety of writing tasks that I am working on at the moment?

 

Writers and deadlines: the stress of it all

Some writers say that they hate deadlines, seeing them as a barrier to the flow of creativity. Others describe the necessity of having deadlines and schedules in order for them to feel the seriousness of the task. There are many different views associated with the many different approaches to writing. There are also various kinds of deadlines and various ways of seeing their purpose.

One common theme in discussions about writing is that there are so many distractions that nothing would get written without some form of discipline. The distractions might be the internet (‘….just check emails; and update Facebook status; and check what is on Twitter, and back to check on any more recent emails …’), or it might be family and friends, or just the chores that need to be done as part of daily life. Seeing a deadline drawing closer and closer, taking on more and more substance, is one way of directing attention to writing rather than all those other things.

The classic deadline trades Stress and Time. As time gets shorter; so stress can get stronger. Awareness of the dwindling time left to produce an expected number of words can be a great spur to getting down to the task of writing seriously (but no guarantee of improving the quality of what gets written). At the same time, too little time and too much stress may mean that, for some people, a deadline can begin to act as a paralysis not as an energiser.

Putting things off or being pressed into action

Linked to the idea of deadlines are notions around procrastination, writer’s block, publishing timescales, self-discipline and so on.

Let’s try to separate some of these out a bit:

Writer’s block: Writing can range from being a highly emotional, draining activity to being a tedious struggle to fix the right words in place. It can present itself, daily, as a task, a chore, a barrier to be leapt. No wonder, then, that some writers fear sitting down to write and being unable to get into the flow of it all. Does having a daily starting deadline help here? Does the routine of having a fixed time to sit at the computer and hit the keys help overcome any of those ‘blocks’? Or does having a fixed start time mean that the mind and body tighten up as that time gets closer?

Procrastination: If starting on something feels difficult then procrastination gets round that: lets the potential writer off the writing hook for a bit longer. Some established writers have described the lengths they might go to. Kingsley Amis, for example, regularly lingered over breakfast, then leisurely read the newspapers, and might do various little tasks before getting settled at the typewriter around midmorning – but still in his dressing gown so that there was always the option of breaking off and getting washed, shaved, dressed.

Self-discipline: Some of the more humorous writers capture their views in pithy statements such as ‘Never put off until tomorrow what you can’t do the day after tomorrow’ (Mark Twain) or ‘I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by’ (Douglas Adams). This self-reflection on a writer’s inability to meet a deadline even gets incorporated into the writing eg Hunter S Thompson would incorporate his struggle to finish a piece of work in time into the very content of the piece of writing itself. Edgar Allan Poe explored some of this aspect of self-discipline when he implied that writers can know that a thing has to be done but can, at the same time, keep putting it off – as if simply to be perverse. In comparison Emile Zola described using ‘the terrible anvil of daily deadlines’ as a way that a writer’s style gets forged over time. Quite a number of people giving writing advice seem to suggest the ‘Always try to do 800 words by 10.30am’ approach. It will work for some people but not for others.

Publisher timescales: The publication schedules have hardened up so that a book aimed at the Christmas market needs to be ready to enter the publicity machine on the set date. Publishers are thus under their own deadlines and push these on to writers. In some cases writers have chosen to write in that way: Dickens meeting publication deadlines with his serialised novels etc. In some cases the writer may have been so established that they could expect flexibility from a publisher, whereas a newer writer would be expected to comply with deadline dates. It simply feels that the publishing industry has become far more mechanised and that attitudes to deadlines have hardened. Certainly a new writer who misses deadlines will build a reputation as ‘unreliable’. Even with more established writers, the speed of fashion is going at such a pace that overshooting a deadline may put a book at risk of no longer quite fitting what is wanted.

Creativity to timescale

In a 2009 lecture Orthan Pamuk made the distinction between the novelist who simply writes: spontaneously, serenely, unselfconsciously, because ‘there is no greater agony than bearing an untold tale inside you’ (Maya Angelou) and the novelist who thinks about their writing, reflects on and questions the written word. Some writers don’t feel that it is possible to be creative-on-demand. Other writers feel more able to say, as Evelyn Waugh did when requesting time out from the army, that they have a novel that can be written in three months precisely.

How to be more likely to hit deadlines

Prioritise – Which things are more important? Which things have more potential to influence how things go in the future? Which things are more urgent and need to be done first? Which things bring consequences if not done to time?

Get mundane things out the way – There are likely to be some routine chores which if done quickly will not linger in the mind. These may include a disciplined go at clearing emails, checking social media etc – and then leaving them alone for a while.

Be realistic – Judge how long things might really take to do, allowing for all of life’s not-unreasonable demands. Is it possible to get the several bits of writing I am juggling all done by the end of the month? Unlikely! Deadlines work for me when they are reasonable and realistic.

Make lists/timelines – electronically or pencil-and-paper, if only as a way of thinking things through, sorting things out, shifting things around.

Think whether they are deadlines (to be hit) or targets (to be aimed for, worked around) For some writers imposed deadlines bring out the urge to rebel. Where you have the freedom to see ‘deadlines’ as ‘aspirations’ means that they can be seen as a way of stretching yourself, of helping things move along without a feeling of failure if things don’t exactly go to plan.

 

Where does this leave me in relation to deadlines?

For so much of the last ten years of my working career I was responsible for ensuring that outcomes got delivered by each quarter-year’s deadline – with support funding only being made after the event, once the outcome-delivery was confirmed. There could be no ‘almost made it’, no fudging of data to make it appear that things had been done. It was hit the deadline on all counts or lose the money. Deadlines were everything. At the same time we were able to run this deadline-driven regime in a way that was flexible and supportive for those at the frontline delivery. They had a difficult enough job to do without being continually hassled with worries about deadlines. Deadlines were vital but we didn’t allow them to generate stress throughout the range of organisations worked with.

Now, as a writer (and it still feels a bit strange describing myself as that) I set my own deadlines. I am accountable to myself for hitting or missing those deadlines; and I can be my own hardest task-master. I make promises via things I put on blogs or tell friends and do my utmost to meet those commitments – but they are aspirations. If life gets in the way; if things happen to slow the writing down (and that is not the same as procrastinating) then I am gentle on myself whilst expecting the ‘deliverables’ to still be done as soon as possible. It is an approach that works for me.

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