Writing to a Deadline

The difference between writing for fun and writing as part of developing a career.

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There are lots of writers who began their career as hobbyists. I spent much of my childhood convinced I would never be paid for a word of my work (but was adamant that payment wasn’t necessary), and yet now I am asked to write regularly…to deadlines.

I naturally fail when it comes to deadlines. I lose track of days easily and muddle numbers in my head. I’ll wander around with an abstract sensation that something is wrong, but it isn’t until I’m reminded that I have a deadline (or, more commonly, I’ve missed a deadline) that I remember what I’ve been ambling towards.

Lots of writers I know aren’t writers full-time, which adds to the complexity of the issue. Sure, we can write things down (we’re good at that), but maybe we don’t remember to, or get distracted or write it down and lose the note. What I’m saying is: for some authors, deadlines are complicated affairs, but also a necessary part of business. It’s all fine and dandy writing for fun, but when considering the reality of writing as a career choice, things can take a few moments to adjust.

As a teenager, I used to write twenty pages a week so that every Tuesday I could read to our lodger. This was my first deadline really, and I set it myself. Nothing was concrete. There was no consequence to missing a deadline except I’d possibly not get to read that week (and that didn’t happen, I was too excited). I was still writing for fun. No one was paying me. If I missed a week, it wouldn’t mean a bad review and possibly loss of income and customers.

Move on to now, where have deadlines for anthologies I want to write for, dissertations that need writing and publication schedules for places that have kindly asked for my words of wisdom (such fools!). Juggling dates, numbers, enthusiasm and energy can be a tedious thing. I remember when writing was fun, and it still is, but adding sharp disappointment from people does make the whole experience taste a little bitter. Miss a deadline and it risks a knock-on effect for the rest of the week. It can help fuel imposter syndrome and lead to a very annoying downwards spiral.

That’s the worst-case scenario. We don’t want to worry about that because we’re not going to reach that point. Instead I have a few methods in mind to help youngling writers find their feet in paid work, but be warned; it may require a bit of ego deflating.

First things first, be realistic.

Back at university, I loved writing essays. I’ll get that out of the way early. I loved the theories and arguments, the discussions on visual histories and citations and analysis of old texts and art, plus Harvard referencing. I love it all. When they said the dissertation was only going to be 10,000 words, I was disappointed.

Back at home, I’d live and breathe writing stories. My touch-typing speed could reach beyond a hundred words a minute, and my desk was overflowing with notes that I’d leave for myself for whenever I’d slow down.

I’m not just saying this to show off, but to also mention that, as stated above, I still fail at deadlines. Being able to write quickly isn’t the same as being able to write quality. While I was good at writing essays at university, that doesn’t mean I’m good at writing every essay. Eager to prove myself and get my name out into the world, as well as feeling over-confident thanks to my university record, I ended up putting far too much work on my already crowded desk.

I didn’t see it, though. I thought, ‘I know this. I can do this.’ While I hit most, if not all, of my deadlines, I felt an immovable fatigue loom over me as more deadlines piled in.

I wasn’t writing about the same things anymore. I’d never written short stories before, and yet there I was, desperately hoping it was the same as novel writing (it isn’t) and that I could submit them and move on (I couldn’t). This was all in the comfort of my local groups, by the way; by the time I moved back into university to complete a masters degree, I realised something had to give. I couldn’t work full time, write essays and short stories on the side, and complete an intense degree course.

I hadn’t found my stride or the rhythm of writing pieces yet, and that meant a lot of unvetted story ideas took more of my time than they deserved. Sometimes I’d sit there for hours wondering what I could possibly write about given the constraints of what was being asked of me. Sure, friends can forgive if I don’t hand a piece of work in one time, but a competition will shut its doors in my face and whisper, ‘Bye, Felicia,’ if I’m so much as a second late.

There were times I’d missed anthologies and submission deadlines for paying jobs because I was too busy trying to write for everything that came my way. No one was to be disappointed, I told myself, ignoring the fact that I was disappointed with almost every submission. I knew people who would write an essay every week and wonder when they could possibly have time to proof-read their work, but they’d been doing this longer than I had and they’d found their rhythm.

So, the degree. I told myself that I needed to stop writing for a time and work out what kind of writer I wanted to be. I didn’t want to write something off the top of my head and hope it worked, but that meant turning people down. It meant some people weren’t going to approach me anymore (a bit like working for a zero-hour contract, really), and that was how it was going to be.

Some people can write a short story a day, but it’s worth remembering that at one point they couldn’t, and that not every one of those stories is going to be a publishable winner. You might think you’re capable of this (and I’m not saying you aren’t), but it may be worth testing your limits early. Don’t be afraid to say no. Sure, people may stop asking for your work, but once you dedicate more time to quality, they’ll come back.

In the same thread of thought, not everyone is worth your time or your words. They may make demands you simply cannot compete with and it is at this point you need to stay aware of your mental health. Don’t be afraid to have fun with your work—whether it is essays, articles or stories—because that’s what people are going to be reading. If your work isn’t exciting you (because you’re focusing on deadlines) then it’ll bore a reader too.

The idea is that starting off small will lead to something bigger. A snowball of ideas and enthusiasm, as it were, will form as you write. You may struggle with a short story a week, so feel free to change it to a month, or a quarter. Avoid writing about topics that disinterest you; the more excited you are—at least in my case—the faster you will write.

My final thought on this topic is to remember to not punish yourself when the spring of ideas dries up. Writers often describe an emptiness after a submission of a piece, or an inability to step out of a previous story. It can be frustrating, but dwelling on it will only serve to prolong the drought. Give yourself a break, remove yourself and remember that you are allowed to go and do something non-writing related. Cleanse your palette. Listen to music. Go for a walk. If you really want to write, maybe try writing prompts. Either way, do not punish yourself if you get stuck, and remember that this is merely a season in a writer’s life, and soon it will rain again.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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