Do you know how to set your own writing deadlines to accomplish your dreams? Ruthanne wrote here about how a move helped her discover the power of deadlines. Joe heartily endorses setting your own deadlines with consequences as accountability (that's how he wrote his most recent book).
Learning to set and meet your own writing deadlines not only helps you get your work done, it provides creative and productive freedom.
I’m a firm believer in deadlines.
Some will argue that creativity has no end point and that they can’t be inspired if there’s a timeline. If that mindset results in powerful writing and stories that resonate with readers as regularly as you’d like, then go forth and continue with the process that is working for you!
If, however, you can’t seem to finish in the time and manner you desire, a little deadline practice might be just the thing you need to propel your writing forward.
Why you need a writing deadline
I’m a teacher. My students regularly develop ideas, draft, revise, and submit their writing.
When I don’t set a deadline for assignments, guess how many students voluntarily turn in their work in a timely manner? Very few.
This probably sounds familiar if you’ve had a traditional school experience (adult working environments often work this way too!).
We tend to think we’ll have more time to do it later, or that we just need a little more research, experience, or coffee. (You probably do need more coffee.) Others believe they do their best work at the last minute, but sometimes that is because it’s the only time they write.
A deadline cuts down all those reasons and forces us to get to work.
Planning for a writing deadline
As I plan for student deadlines, I always make room for thinking and idea development. We draft. Then we take several passes at the writing to revise.
I realized early in my teaching career that most students were going to spend about the same amount of time on a first draft whether they wrote it in one speed session the night before it was due or spaced it out over several days. Most students didn’t take the time to revise, because they didn’t know how or there wasn’t time after an all-nighter.
As a result, I began in-class writing sprints, telling students the first draft was due at the end of the period. Whining inevitably ensued, but guess how many students had a draft at the end of the period? All of them. Funny how a ticking clock activated the words.
If you are planning your own deadline, look at when you want the final draft done and then back plan, giving yourself time to revise, write, and develop the idea. (Pro tip: leave yourself a little more time for revision than you think you’ll need if this is your first time revising.)
When you blow a deadline
You might be thinking, “I’ve tried that before and I blew it. Deadlines don’t work for me.” Just because you miss a deadline doesn’t mean they don’t work. It means you have an opportunity to grow.
I recently missed a deadline here at The Write Practice. I felt terrible, but I didn’t wallow in it. I apologized and did some self-evaluation. Why did I miss it? What could I do to avoid letting it happen again?
Consider that sometimes your writing deadlines are unrealistic. Manage those expectations more effectively and set a new, better deadline. Sometimes you are in a difficult writing or life season. Be honest about that and forgive yourself, knowing the situation will change.
The more you practice setting and meeting writing deadlines, the better you will get at estimating time and the amount of work needed.
The secret freedom of setting your own deadlines
My high school students claim to want independence, but they are just like me. I want the fun parts of independence without the responsibility. At the beginning of the year, I am the one who provides deadlines and due dates, but I slowly begin to turn that responsibility over to students as the year progresses. Why?
When they require someone else to set their deadlines, they aren’t really in control of their life and process. I’m the same way. If I know an article is going to take me an hour to write and another hour or two to edit, I can wait until the night before it’s due and stay up late to finish, or I can do it when it makes the most sense in my schedule.
Why wait for someone else to tell me when it is due? I take control of my creative process by setting my own writing deadlines.
When you ignore your own deadlines
For a long time, I set goals or deadlines for myself, and then I wouldn’t follow through. I thought maybe it was just me. I realized though that no one had ever taught me to push through the process.
I believe it was Tim Grahl who once talked about how he would push through procrastination and tell himself, “You need to do this now, because Friday-you isn’t going to have the time or energy.”
That resonated with me. I have since used it with students to help them think through to the end.
I also realized I couldn’t continue to ignore my own writing deadlines after completing a 60,000 word draft during NaNoWriMo a few years ago. I still needed about 20K to finish the story.
No one had a deadline on that book but me. If I hadn't set my own deadline, the book wouldn't be in revision right now. It would still be sitting on my hard drive — not even collecting dust like a respectable unfinished manuscript of old.
If you are still in the I-should-write-a-book stage, no one is going to give you a deadline. You have to do it for yourself. Accept that truth and find freedom in knowing you are in control of this part of the process.
Deadlines have a best friend: accountability
When you combine a deadline with another writer or group to hold you accountable, you will find yourself meeting writing deadlines left and right. When I first joined Becoming Writer, our forum here at The Write Practice, I knew I needed to post something each Friday. Suddenly, I had a deadline and a group of people who checked on me.
If you are struggling to set and meet your own deadlines, find a partner or group to help hold you accountable.
I still work under deadlines that others set for me, but I have found that more often than not, I can challenge myself to beat those deadlines by making my own.
What has been your experience with deadlines? Have you found them to be freeing or constricting? Share in the comments.
Today, we're going to practice setting and meeting deadlines. Here's your challenge: write 300 words in the next fifteen minutes.
If you have a work in progress, continue that. Or, use this writing prompt: Anna's biggest dance performance of the year is a week away. There's just one problem . . .
When your time is up, share your practice in the comments below. Be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers and spur us all on to meet our deadlines!
Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveler with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.