Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Motivational Toolbox: Deadlines

All of us have, one time or another, worked against a deadline. For many of us, our last real encounter with a deadline was in the form of assignment due dates in high school or college. Others have had to work with them in our careers, even if it is only the phrase “I need this by the end of the day” from our supervisors.

I think it’s safe to say deadlines aren’t on anyone’s list of favorite things.

However, we also must admit that, as much as we hate or dread them, we need to face the undeniable fact that deadlines are fantastically effective motivators.

How many times have we struggled in vain for weeks over a project, only to have the prospect of a looming deadline break open the frozen floodgates of imagination? Even if it does mean staying up and working all night to finish it in time? It’s like that one moment, selected arbitrarily from an infinite number of equally valid moments, has a magnetic attachment to the imaginative centers of the brain. The closer that moment grows the more creative we get.

For instance, in my own college career, only once did I approach a term paper the way we were all supposed to by beginning to research and write it within a day of the paper’s assignment. Only once did I do it that way. (The paper was on John Skelton’s “Speke, Parrot” as I recall and I received a B.) The vast majority of my papers were furiously assembled the final few days available and hurriedly typed the night before it was due.

However, looking at the issue realistically, how many papers would never be written if the instructor left the assignment open-ended, like, say, “must be turned in before graduation?” Without the deadline, most of us would never get the work done.

Again, deadlines, as much as we hate them, are undeniably effective. So how do we translate this to our writing life?

A small minority who write for newspapers and magazines already write to a deadline. The even smaller minority who have contracts with publishing companies also have deadlines for the submission of books. Congratulations to all of you. This article is not written for you.

For most of us, this writing gig is something we do in our spare time. We write in the evenings after we have already put in eight hours at our day jobs. Or we write in the few quiet hours between our kids’ bed times and our own. After dealing with deadlines all day, often the last thing we want is to impose our own deadlines on our writing.

However, if we don’t impose those deadlines on ourselves, we run the risk of having the same fate as those college papers that can be turned in “whenever.” Things don’t get done. Too many times we will find ourselves with a handful of excuses. We’ll be too tired, too stressed, too busy, or too something else to get that story written.

We need something to keep us motivated.

Many people use quotas to this purpose. Say, they make themselves write 1000 words a day, or 1000 a week. I have a great deal of admiration for them and their discipline, but the quota system has never worked well for me. I always seem to find myself spending more time checking the word count than actually writing.

What I have always found to work best for me is to construct my own deadlines. They don’t have to be all that much aggressive. It could be something as simple as completing a particular scene today. Or perhaps (since I’m spending most of my time writing longer works these days, or trying to) I want to finish chapter two by the end of next week and the first draft of the entire novel by Christmas 2015. It makes writing a little more goal-oriented and I can always tailor the deadline to what I think I can realistically accomplish.

Naturally, there are no real consequences to missing a deadline. I’m not going to flunk novel-writing if I don’t finish it by Christmas. I’m not going to be fired. However, should I fail to meet enough of my deadlines, I will not finish the novel I’m trying to write. So it is important to hold yourself accountable, whether you set yourself writing quotas or deadlines.

It’s all about motivation. Try different methods of motivating yourself and see what works. Then use it. Make yourself write and reward yourself when you make your goals. Do that and it will show in your productivity.

For me, the answer is setting deadlines.

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