Show me a writer, and I’ll show you a person with a complicated relationship with deadlines. If I may be so bold, I declare that deadlines suck. Deadlines are also necessary for meeting your goals and being productive as a writer, though.
This post discusses why you should include deadlines in your writing process. We also look at time-honored tips for improving your relationship with deadlines.
Why Bother With Deadlines?
Tell me if you’ve seen this movie before: A well-known author gets hounded by an agent to finally complete the next manuscript that’s sure to be a bestseller. The writer can’t find inspiration, so they continue to dodge their agent’s calls.
You’ve probably seen this storyline a dozen times over. These stories are popular because they’re true to life. Most creative types, especially writers, don’t like working against a deadline.
That said, deadlines are not evil. In fact, deadlines can help us reach our goals on time. Without them, we wouldn't experience the much-needed urgency to complete our work.
Some may think that if you are working on your first novel, no one's expecting your manuscript, so a deadline is unnecessary. However, I push back on this idea. Here’s why deadlines are always necessary:
Deadlines Hold You Accountable
Before a literary agent starts hounding you, a deadline will be your first form of pressure. You may need that pressure to motivate you to produce your best work on time.
It's human nature to procrastinate and to say, wistfully, “Maybe one day.” This tendency is especially true for writers. I've met several hopeful writers who have a sensational idea for a story and earnestly want to write it. However, waiting for that “Maybe one day” to appear rarely works.
A writer is more likely to write if they have a deadline.
Move at a Steady Pace
Another benefit of a deadline is that it forces you to move. Deadlines require a response, even if that response is to push your deadline back to a later time. However, if you follow the steps below, you can manage your time to make steady progress towards your deadline.
Become a True Professional
Do you want to become a professional writer? The best way to accomplish that goal is to get cozy with deadlines.
Deadlines are a constant companion for any professional writer. When you become a professional writer, everyone depends on you to produce on a reliable schedule. By ‘everyone,’ I'm referring to your literary agent, publisher, adoring fans (including your mom), and yourself. If you want respect as a professional writer, you must embrace deadlines and hold yourself accountable.
Work With Focus and Urgency
Nothing gives you greater focus than a wild animal chasing you. In the moment of a chase, you have intense clarity on what options may be available, and you decide quickly without too much deliberation.
Now, imagine the wild animal is your deadline. That's what a deadline can feel like—a wild and ravenous animal that will eat you if it catches you. (Yes, it’s a vivid imagination, but don’t all writers think in these terms?)
Giving yourself deadlines is similar to dropping yourself right into the middle of a vicious hunt. Writing toward a deadline raises your adrenaline and helps you do what you must to avoid negative repercussions.
Make a Plan of Action
When you have a deadline, you can work backward to set up your tasks. By working backward, you can identify what you need to do and when to meet your deadline. Without a deadline, you'll likely never create a plan of action. If you do manage to create a plan, it won’t have any teeth.
See the Progress You've Made
Finally, a deadline helps you see how far you’ve come and how much further you need to go to meet your deadline. This vision is especially true with a plan of action. While the deadline may be unmovable, you can use it along with your plan of action to decide if you need to reassess or accelerate your writing efforts. I also recommend adding multiple deadlines for this reason, but more on that later.
How to Become Better With Deadlines as a Writer
Now, let’s discuss how to improve your relationship with deadlines. The following are tips that I live by as a writer with over two decades of experience.
The first step to becoming better with deadlines is to set writing goals. I advise every writer to have a goal for completing their book. Not just a fuzzy, “one day I’ll write the Next Great American novel” type of goal, either.
Instead, to be successful, you need to set a specific action-oriented goal that shows you what you're aiming for and how you will get it done.
A great framework to employ is the S.M.A.R.T. goal strategy. S.M.A.R.T. is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-based. Here’s how it breaks down:
Be as specific as possible with your goal, such as, “I want to write an entire romance novel from scratch in 100 days.”
Make your goal measurable. In other words, how will you track your progress toward your goal? For example, it takes approximately 100,000 words to write the average novel. If you plan to write one in 100 days, you’ll need to write 1,000 words daily. This goal is measurable because you can easily track if you hit that daily target.
Make a list of actions you’ll need to take to accomplish your goals. This list often consists of to-dos, such as writing every day between 6 pm to 8 pm.
Set realistic goals for yourself. Very few of us can write for 10+ hours a day. Keep your goals feasible for you to do while also juggling the rest of your day-to-day demands.
Focus on time. Set deadlines to give yourself a sense of urgency.
Develop a Writing Schedule
Create a writing schedule.
A writing schedule is nothing to fear. Several writers don’t like writing on a schedule because they want to write when inspiration hits. However, any writer who’s been successful in the profession knows that inspiration is utterly unreliable. A steady stream of inspiration is not what typically fuels our work. Instead, if you want to meet your deadlines, you must show up and start writing. If you’re lucky, inspiration will come; if not, consistency will help you produce quality work.
Set a writing schedule that you can realistically maintain. If you can only consistently write for 30 minutes daily, agree to do that. You’ll find that being realistic in your schedule will ensure you progress towards your goal and meet your deadline with time to spare.
When are you most productive and creative during the day? If possible, schedule your writing time during this window.
Create Multiple Deadlines
Having one ominous deadline is exhausting and unnecessary.
Instead of having only one deadline, you can set multiple deadlines to ensure you hit your short and long-term goals. Your long-term goal may be to write the novel, but your short-term goal may be to complete a chapter or create an outline. Setting multiple deadlines is an excellent way to push yourself forward while celebrating little wins.
It's hard to avoid all the distractions that life throws at us, but you can dodge the most common ones that prevent you from reaching your goals.
For most of us, managing deadlines means managing distractions. When it’s time to write, tell your friends and family to forget you exist. Put your phone on silent, turn off your WiFi (if possible), head to the local library to avoid noise, or purchase noise-canceling headphones. Do whatever you can to eliminate common disrupters during your writing session.
Don't Torture Yourself
You will miss deadlines, but that doesn’t mean the world will end, not even your world. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, the wild animal will overtake you. However, instead of blaming yourself, figure out why you didn't make the deadline and make adjustments for the future. Psst: Sometimes, we miss a deadline because the deadline is unrealistic. Don't be too hard on yourself and instead set better deadlines.
Start With the Thing You Don't Want to Do
Have you ever heard of the task management strategy known as “Eat the Frog?”
When you eat the frog, you do the most challenging and undesirable task first. Why? When you push the difficult stuff back, you threaten your ability to make a deadline. If you wait until the end of the day to start on a dreaded task, you won't have the energy or the creativity to do it well. Eating the frog manages your energy, so you’re fresh when it's time to do that task. The resulting boost in productivity will positively affect your ability to meet your deadline(s).
Deadlines may not be fun, but they are necessary. They can push you to get your tasks done on time. The above tips will help you improve your time management and meet your writing deadlines more often.