For the first time ever, an editor had accepted one of my pitches. And he just so happened to work at a lit mag of my dreams. I dashed off my reply, mentally adding this triumph to my author bio, then looked at my calendar. I’d agreed to send him a 2,000-word personal essay on “what it means to be there for someone and how the government chooses to define family” in two weeks. Tackling this hefty topic was one challenge, and the calendar revealed another—the next week, I’d be away on a long-scheduled sailing trip, but deadlines must be respected.
If I’d known the editor or been published by this magazine before, I might’ve slunk back with an apology and explained how I brashly hadn’t checked my dates. But we’d made an agreement, and I wanted my first impression to be of the poised, discerning writer, even if it was strictly an allusion.
The deadline was a double-edged sword. On one wonderful side was the fact that in two short weeks, this literary professional would be editing my essay for publication. On the other, a more painful one, I had to write a worthy essay amidst heaving swells and sweaty bunkmates.
From this, and other less harrowing experiences, here’s some advice on managing deadlines.
Get into Gear and Create Mini-Deadlines
As soon as I put the August 30th deadline into my calendar, I started working backward. I would have to get a rough draft done on the boat, so I could send it to a writer-friend the following week. My process always involves at least one other set of eyes, and I wasn’t going to jeopardize clean copy for island revelry. If I asked my peer editors to get back to me within a few days, I would still have enough time to incorporate their edits before sending off my final(ish) draft. All these dates went into my writing planner—a document with weekly headers and bullet points of what I’m working on.
Note: Getting into gear does not mean flinging open your computer and frantically typing the first draft. It means inhaling, exhaling, and putting together a plan of how you’ll execute the project then beginning.
Speaking of strategies…
Stick to the Plan
Indecision leads to anxious thought loops, self-doubt, and (worst of all) wasted writing time. Instead of second-guessing my capabilities and crafting a vacation confession, I opened my notebook and started penning the first draft. Scheduling mini-deadlines had soothed my frantic mind, and I was able to write from a calm, clear-headed place.
Barring a life crisis or other legitimate excuse, trust that you’re capable of following through on your deadlines. And when I say a legitimate excuse, remember that whoever gave you your cut-off time has their own as well, and be as honest as possible about whether you need that extra time.
This might also mean you have to…
Curb your Perfectionism: Helps You Beat the Deadline
With the exception of a contest or fellowship application, deadlines often mean someone will be giving you feedback on your writing. Yes, you still want to impress your editor, but his/her job isn’t merely to proofread—it’s to give you edits.
In other words, while they’re expecting a piece that’s as good as you can make it, they’re also there to help make it even better.
Note: When your submission is your final version, consider building some additional time-frames into your schedule, so you can have an extra set of eyes to edit and proofread your work. This is an instance where you want everything to be as polished as possible.
Trust in Yourself
No matter how old you are or what level of writing experience you have, you’ve already hit many time limits. Shopping for your drooly nephew’s birthday present requires a deadline. Composing a lovingly hilarious wedding toast, and sliding into the wine store before it closes; also require deadlines.
If you’re awash in waves of self-doubt, try journaling a list of other projects you’ve completed. Find your inner cheerleader who will propel you forward, and see if they’ll tell Doubtful Dorothy to step aside.
As I mentioned earlier, this was my first accepted pitch, which means for many years, I was setting my own time limits. They helped me finish my first novel, put together a photography-poetry collaboration, and hold myself accountable for my literary ambitions.
Although the above advice still applies, there are a few differences to keep in mind.
Be Your Own Nice Boss: Set Reasonable Deadlines
Had I been setting my own essay deadline, I would’ve made it two weeks after my vacation—enough time to readjust to responsible life and get back into the writing groove. A target date should support your work, not cause anxious rushes and make the writing process more difficult.
This leads to…
Know the Way You Work
I ”finished” my first novel when I was twenty-five. And by finished I mean, I had ten copies of the manuscript printed and bound at Staples. It would only take four more years for a vague semblance of this story to be published as Purple Gold.
At the time, my goal was simple—to gift this nascent novel to my closest friends and family as a birthday present to myself. I hit my deadline and then went on a birthday bender (not necessarily part of the recommended advice).
This is all to say, think about your schedule and what’s realistic. Will finishing a novel draft by the new year mean you’re stress-writing during family holiday time? It might be better to use a long weekend as a mini-writing retreat and move your target date after that. Think about pacing yourself, and balancing your writing alongside baby birthdays and wine time.
Balance Quality with Productivity Regardless of the Deadlines
All this said, there’s a difference between rushed writing and polished prose. If you’re nearing the point of sending your novel manuscript to an agent, it’s better to give yourself all the time you need.
As I said earlier, be honest with holding yourself accountable versus giving your writing the time it needs. This might mean reading your work aloud and hearing if it sounds finished, sharing it with others to get their thoughts, or journaling about your goals to know exactly what you’re working towards.
On that boat trip, I’d debark early, find a hidden café, and get down my first draft. One of my favorite parts of traveling is wandering off with my notebook, so the morning writing didn’t feel like work.
When I needed to use my computer, I converted the skipper’s table into a writing desk. Luckily he found this amusing and asked how famous I was. (Very famous, my reply).
When I got back home, I broke one of my writing rules and wrote at the library on a Saturday. This meant I could send the draft to my readers, and I’d have the rest of the week for them to read and me to revise.
While I couldn’t call it a masterpiece, I was proud of the essay when I sent it to my editor. And best of all, he did not shoot back a scathing response questioning my vacation-level prose. Rather, we went through two rounds of edits which kept the essay timely and made it even stronger. While I wouldn’t call sailing conducive to writing, it was another step on the journey of learning to create my best work.
Tell us in the comments: How do you react when you receive deadlines? And have you ever set one for yourself?
Gracie Bialecki is a writer, literary coach, and workshop facilitator. Her work has appeared in various publications including Catapult and Epiphany Magazine where she was a monthly columnist. Bialecki is the co-founder of the storytelling series Thirst, and the author of the poetry collection Youth, as well as the novel Purple Gold (ANTIBOOKCLUB).
You can find her on her website or follow her on Twitter.