Get Smarter With Deadlines

columbusIf you’re singing the deadline blues, here’s a formula that’ll have you humming a happier tune.

I should have written this last weekend. But the weather was nice, the games on TV tempting, and somehow the weekend slipped away without my sitting at the keyboard. Then, I had to check out some skin tag removal creams to get rid of one of those pesky buggers. Now here I am–writing on deadline.

Plenty of writers claim to do their best work “on deadline.” They bristle with creativity when the clock is ticking–or so they say. The truth is, I suspect, that they don’t do their best work under the gun–that’s the only time when they write. Ah, rationalization.

Nonfiction writers are particularly prone to deadline woes and rationalizations, because so much of our work is done on assignment. But when you’re late it delays the editing, the design, the copy-editing–until somewhere along the production line somebody makes up for your lost time and (usually) the magazine makes it out before the presses roll. Having been on the editing end, I can assure you: That somebody will remember you.

Because we all procrastinate, coping with deadlines may be the nonfiction writer’s most important survival skill. And you need a better plan than merely “thriving under pressure.

Where to, Columbus?

Start with a sense of your assignment’s scope. You must develop a big-picture grasp of your writing challenge, so you can break down that big chore into incremental, smaller challenges.

I like to use the example of Columbus, who set out for the East Indies without an accurate grasp of the length of the voyage ahead. When he arrived in the Americas after a plenty long trip, he concluded he’d reached his goal. Columbus’s huge geographical error may have worked out well for him in the history books, but he never did make it to the East Indies.

Unlike Columbus, you must set out on your writing journeys with a clear vision of where you’re going and a map of how you’ll get there. If you can imagine ahead to the finished article, you can “walk back the cat” (switching from maritime to espionage metaphors) and identify the steps necessary to get you there. Without an accurate picture of your goal, on the other hand, you won’t be able to estimate how long it will take you to reach it, to guess where you are en route, or even to realize when you’re done.

I’ve had many writers working for me who seemed to suffer from a kind of deadline dyslexia. I’d sidle up to them and casually inquire, “Getting close?” “Just another half-hour,” the writer would answer (if this was a newspaper), or “Just one more day” (if this was a magazine). I’d come back: “Getting close?” But the answer would be the same–almost there, not quite.

Imagine if Queen Isabella were along to pester Columbus: “Are we getting close to the Indies?” Columbus would have replied, “Just another few days, my queen.” For he had no idea, any more than these deadline-struggling writers of mine. Is the end almost in sight? Or has the voyage barely begun?

Knowing where you’re going includes having a sense of:

* Your focus: What’s the angle?

* The scope of research require& Will this need two interviews or 20?

* The length (and what 2,000 words “feels like”)

* Your tone and approach: Is this an in-depth investigation, a fact-filled consumer guide, a light essay, an evocative narration?

* Some possible places to start and finish, as well as some ways you might hook readers.

Baby Steps to Beating Deadlines

If you can nod confidently at most of those requirements, your next step to beating deadline blues is to segment the trip and develop intermediate deadlines. By setting realistic mini-deadlines for yourself–and meeting them–you can avoid the frenzy of facing one big deadline. This approach makes for a better-written article, one that’s artfully planned and executed instead of tossed together at the last minute.

Most of your intermediate steps should spring from your over-all article plan. If you know you’ll need to interview about a half-dozen experts, for example, you’ll need several milestones, such as:

* A deadline for beginning your interviewing and getting interview #1 under your belt

* A deadline for completing roughly half your interviews

* A date for having all your interviews at least set up (this might come before the previous deadline, or soon after, depending on your style, the story and scheduling difficulties)

* A deadline for finishing your interviewing

Which of these dates should you determine first? Not the first, but the last. Working backward from your ultimate deadline–your due date–you need to guess how much time you’ll need for actually organizing your notes, writing and revising. If you have a month from getting the assignment to the day it’s due, and you think you’ll need two weeks with your notes and at the keyboard, your interview deadlines must start at two weeks out. Decide when your research must be done, then “back out” the schedule from there.

Segmenting for Sanity

You need to segment not only the pre-writing chores such as researching and interviewing but also the writing work itself. Don’t forget to allow time for mulling over your notes, plotting your story’s structure, whittling your material to what fits within your word count and settling on a lead. Time allocated here can save you far more time in revision (not to mention first-draft time wasted pulling your hair and pacing, trying to puzzle out what comes next or how to negotiate a transition).

Some steps in your writing time that might call for their own mini-deadlines include:

* Notes reviewed, with key material highlighted

* First rough outline sketched

* Outline finalized and matched with notes

* Lead, central thematic paragraphs; and ending fleshed out, at least in detailed outline form

* First draft completed (in a longer assignment, you might want a separate deadline for hitting the halfway point in your first-draft word count)

* Main revision and self-editing completed, including trimming for length if needed

* Final draft checked for spelling, accuracy, grammar

Depending on the complexity of the project, these intermediate deadlines might be mere scribbles on a calendar, note-pad reminders or alarms in your head. But if you set yourself a series of milestones, however informal, and stick to them, you’ll never see Deadline Day dawn with an assignment barely begun.

Small deadlines–and the small successes that come in meeting them–are also confidence boosters: By setting incremental, achievable goals, you can build a track record of deadline-meeting.

So why didn’t I follow my own advice with this column? Oh, but I did. Sure, I probably should have tackled the first draft earlier–but I didn’t have to, and I didn’t panic. You see, I’d already scoped out my subject a couple of weeks ago, planned the pieces of the puzzle, and knew where I’d have to be today to be able to sit down and write.

Even if you’re “on deadline,” it feels a lot better if you’ve met all the little deadlines before this one.

And I think I can still catch the second half of the game.

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