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You Want It When?! The Value of Deadlines

Viewed one way, deadlines are a pain, a nuisance, a source of stress and frustration.

Viewed another way, however, they can be of great benefit, regardless of your job title, but especially if you are an editor or a writer.

We all have deadlines in life, many of them imposed on us by others, some self-imposed, and some that we impose upon others. Some deadlines are realistic, others are downright ridiculous, and a few are totally meaningless. The key is distinguishing one from the other and dealing with each appropriately.

As a student, I had to meet certain deadlines. Fees had to be paid by a certain date. Papers had to be turned in on time or suffer a reduction in grade.

As a teacher, I had to turn in my grades by a specified date and time and according to a prescribed format.

As an editor, I had to meet clients’ deadlines.

As an author, I have to meet certain of the publisher’s deadlines for editors, for art and design staff, for marketing personnel, etc.

When I was an editor for a major government contractor, however, I often had internal clients who demanded what I thought were unrealistic deadlines. Usually, however, upon discussing their projects in greater detail, I discovered that they really didn’t need those jobs back from me when they first said they did. They were padding the deadline for their own protection, giving themselves a buffer against unforeseen potential delays. Apparently, they had had problems with earlier editors not meeting their deadlines, so they built in that buffer to ensure that they met their own deadlines.

Further discussion revealed the real date when they needed to receive the completed edit from me. I called that their “drop-dead deadline.” Eventually, they learned that I took deadlines seriously and would always meet, or even beat, their ultimate deadline. After that, their deadlines became much more realistic.

For writers, deadlines, whether imposed by editors and publishers or self-imposed, can be a good thing. They prevent (or at least strongly discourage) procrastination. They provide direction and focus. They help one manage time by prioritizing projects. Met or beaten consistently, deadlines help one establish a reputation for reliability.

Short, or tight, deadlines can be tension-builders. When agreeing to any deadlines, be realistic. Don’t promise delivery too quickly. First, evaluate your schedule carefully. Build yourself a protective buffer of time to allow for those unforeseen problems that arise: a child’s (or your own) illness, an unplanned visit by a friend or relative, unexpected interruptions of all sorts (e.g., power outage, hard-drive crash, printer malfunction).

For me, it’s the long-range deadlines that can be a problem. (As I age, I tend to forget more, even if I write the deadline on my calendar and on my to-do list.) The farther off in time the deadline, the easier it is for me to procrastinate.

For example, one publisher contacts me early in the calendar year to line up article assignments for the upcoming school year. He sets deadlines for each of the two articles he wants me to write, one for the fall publication and the other for the spring issue. If I’m not careful, I’ll allow myself to get busy on other short-term projects and allow those long-range deadlines to creep up on me, causing me to rush my research and writing.

It’s far better to start early, allowing time for my research data to “percolate” before I begin writing. It also allows more time for rewriting, revising, and editing. And those tasks produce a far better end product than a hurry-up-and-meet-that-looming-deadline approach.

How does one deal with unrealistic deadlines?

First, avoid getting saddled with them to begin with.

Second, negotiate. Don’t take the first demanded date at face value. Find out the “absolutely-positively-must-be-there” deadline. Negotiate a mutually agreeable and realistic deadline.

Third, when negotiation still doesn’t produce a reasonable deadline, charge more. It’s amazing how an added “rush order” fee will help the client realize his real deadline!

Finally, the key is to establish a good reputation for meeting deadlines on time. How do you do that? By meeting your deadlines consistently. Then, in the rare occurrence when you can’t meet a deadline, clients will be more understanding. But be sure that missed deadlines are the rare exceptions rather than the rule. Shoot to meet (better yet, to beat) every deadline.

And the way to do that is to discipline yourself. Impose realistic deadlines on yourself, and meet them consistently. If you do, you’ll keep everyone happy and find yourself less stressed!

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