by Amy Bennet
Book Editing Associates
Feeling pressed for time is common, both for writers and for editors. Over 16 years in the publishing industry I’ve learned a few things about meeting deadlines, and I’ll share them here.
First, be willing to narrow your focus. This can take practice but is the first step to peace of mind as well as greater productivity. It’s easy to get caught up in a number of competing priorities and agendas, and we live in a world where people feel pressure to always be accessible, responding to emails and social media and so forth. But humans are not great at being focused and productive under these circumstances. On days when I’m prioritizing a particular deadline, there’s not always much time for other work, and I may have to let clients know I’ll answer their emails in the next day or so when I’m not on deadline. I’m a fan of setting up appointments for phone calls, too. Committing to a deadline means being willing to say no (or not now) to everything else.
Deadlines are easier when shared. When I worked for a monthly magazine, the work was structured around a main deadline to go to press, with other regular deadlines interspersed. Working remotely for a traditional book publisher, we’d have regular deadline crunches for each book, with emails flying back and forth. Many years of experience helped me internalize that sense of deadline pressure and motivation, and this deadline feeling is easier to achieve in a shared environment. If co-working spaces are an option in your area, just the chance to work with other people who are also working can be surprisingly productive. As a writer looking for support you might sit and write with other writers, maybe do timed challenges where you each have to write as many words as you can over the space of ten minutes, whatever it takes to make writing feel immediate and important. Making yourself accountable, by sharing your writing progress with others, either via social media or by having a writing partner you check in with every day, is another way to create a sense of time pressure and shared progress.
Break tasks into manageable chunks. Big, ambitious goals have a way of piling up unfinished, so consider breaking them down into manageable pieces. “Write a novel in a year” thus becomes “Write and revise 2,000 words every week until I have a complete manuscript between 80,000-100,000 words.” Small, reachable deadlines can be the difference between finishing a manuscript and feeling too overwhelmed to move forward.
Practice soft deadlines and hard deadlines. Deadlines are great for productivity, but calendars can be hard to predict, and life happens, so instead of a single hard deadline, consider giving yourself a range. Soft deadlines are the hopeful, gentle, early date at which you want to have a project done, while hard deadlines are the drop-dead deadline when something must be done. A soft deadline might be, say, “autumn,” while a hard deadline would be Oct 31.
Create time to sprint, so you can meander properly. If you’re a writer working on spec (not under contract with a publisher), it can feel like you have all the time in the world, and you can easily end up spending your writing time doing research. (I say “research” because there’s specific information you may need to find in order to write a particular manuscript, and then there’s avoiding writing by reading about random stuff, and there’s a huge gray area in between the two). If you can create and stick to a deadline schedule, you can avoid the guilt of trying to write but not writing. And the deadline sprints should be interspersed with some time to meander. Consider giving yourself some time to stare at the clouds, take long walks, and look into random interests. Non-structured time is useful for planning upcoming scenes, making connections, asking questions, and finding answers. Similarly, take real breaks as needed.
Get comfortable with finishing your writing. Revision is a necessary and wonderful part of the writing process, but to truly meet a deadline you have to be willing to decide that it’s time to share your work. This is not always an easy call to make, but it can get easier with time and practice. Lots of professional writers workshop their stories and novels, which goes to show that almost nobody turns out polished and perfect first drafts. The trick is knowing when you’ve done enough revision to feel finished, and most writers have people they trust to give them quality feedback.
Finally, seek out and enjoy the peace of mind that comes from hitting deadlines. Deadlines aren’t stressful, when done well. I’ve had enough deadline experience to really get a sense of what I’m capable of, and how to face a full day’s work without worry. Meeting deadlines is a skill that’s worth developing, especially for writers (and editors) who have to be self-directed, and want to be working at peak productivity. When you’ve managed your deadlines well, you can knock off work at the end of the day with a sense of peace.
Amy Bennet is a critically acclaimed and agented novelist with a deep knowledge of both the craft and the business of science fiction, fantasy, and horror publishing.