From the Reading Chair

Articles by Laurel Cohn

Deadlines: pros and cons

Date: 11 June 2024

One of the greatest challenges of working on a long format writing project is staying on course. The sheer size of the project, and all that it entails, can make the intended destination feel like a distant dream. Can deadlines help you get there?

Deadlines: pros and cons

Date: 11 June 2024

One of the greatest challenges of working on a long format writing project is staying on course. The sheer size of the project, and all that it entails, can make the intended destination feel like a distant dream. Can deadlines help you get there?

It’s a strange word, deadline. Originally, as two separate words, it referenced a line drawn around a military prison, beyond which a prisoner could be shot. In the 1920s we somehow shifted from that to the notion of a deadline, one word, as a time by which a stated activity has to be completed – an end point or finish line that can’t be moved. Thankfully, the threat of death has dropped away.


Deadlines set by others

Each and every one of us face a range of deadlines in our daily lives to enable the cogs of interconnectedness to keep turning, whether it be something with a ‘due date’, like a bill or library loan, or a ‘closing date’, like a competition or invitation for submissions. These are deadlines set by others, usually to groups of people, to facilitate the continuation or next stage of an activity.

Most of us are quite practiced in managing these types of deadlines, whether we end up successfully meeting them or not. Sometimes there are penalties for missing a due date, and the consequences can be dire, but sometimes a missed deadline may be no more than a missed opportunity, with other options in the future.

Deadlines also serve an important function in the workplace or in voluntary organisations where teamwork is required to achieve an outcome. It might take many steps to reach a goal, each with its own deadline. For example, a publisher may want to release a book to coincide with a major event. They have a deadline they need the manuscript by, having lined up an editor to work on it by a certain date, a printer to ship the product by a certain date, a distributor to get the books to venues by a certain date. Getting that manuscript to the publisher on time is critical, if the deadline is missed, the ability to achieve the end goal may crumble.


Self-imposed deadlines

And then there are self-imposed deadlines where we decide we want to achieve something by a specific date, such as to complete a piece of writing. These types of deadlines can help us structure our time, focus our energy, and give us the momentum to keep going. They can be enormously supportive in helping us reach our goals. As writer M.L. Davis says, ‘You don’t realise how much time you’re able to put aside for writing until you have a deadline.’

When I have an intended date to finish something by it helps me push through a tendency to allow an idea to waft around in circles; it sharpens my thinking and increases my focus. It often compels me to get out of my intellectual comfort zone and unlock new ideas.

At their best, self-imposed deadlines are motivators that generate productivity. At their worst, they are burdens that generate stress. I see both ends of the spectrum with writers I work with. Often a writer will book in for feedback on their manuscript while they’re still working on it. They may be highly organised people who are thinking ahead, or who understand there can be a waiting time of several months for a booking slot, but in many cases, these writers are in search of a deadline to finish the current draft by, to spur them on. A reason to push forward. A goal.

I get it. Working towards something concrete can make the endeavour feel more purposeful. And what makes it ‘concrete’ is the commitment to someone else (me, in this case), to meet the deadline. Over the years, however, I’ve learnt to manage my schedule knowing that a certain percentage of writers will pull out of their booking as they are unable to meet the deadline.

Again, I get it. It’s not a mark of failure. I always encourage writers to do as much work as they can before handing their manuscript over to a professional for feedback. It’s better to reset the deadline if you’re not ready, but if you constantly find yourself resetting deadlines, you can end up undermining your own confidence by falling short of self-set expectations. And if you are working with a professional, it may simply not be possible to keep moving a submission date.

It is important to be realistic about the deadlines you set yourself. The process of putting a book-length work together can take unexpected twists. Life has a habit of getting in the way at times, and creative endeavours have a habit of demanding things from us we can’t foresee. As you move through the draft you are working on, you may arrive at insights that lead you to change direction, you may rethink a core plank of the story or how you want to tell it, you may simply realise there’s more to do than you initially thought.

When it all feels a little overwhelming, focussing on your goal can help. Different goals will spawn different types of deadlines. Is your goal to finish the chapter? Finish the manuscript? Find a publisher? Is it to give yourself regular uninterrupted time to write? To dive deep into a story idea?

If you struggle with deadlines, think about what is realistically do-able, and what the fallout will be if you miss a self-imposed deadline. How will you feel? How will that impact reaching the goal? Rather than abandon deadlines – re-set them and make them reachable.


Making deadlines work for you

The more you understand about your relationship to your writing practice, the easier it will be to navigate your pathway to deadlines and beyond. The reality is that all published writers have to work to multiple deadlines in the life of a project. Once you involve others in the process – seeking feedback, entering competitions, submitting work, working with a publisher – you can’t avoid them. In my experience, the more structure you can find for your writing practice, the more likely you are to reach your goal; deadlines are a great way of imposing structure.

And now I can tick off the self-imposed deadline of writing this month’s blog!

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