The Art of the Deadline: Curse or Cure

Laura Bottomley

This paper aims to find out whether the deadline is a good thing and how to manage it, endeavoring to discuss the positive and negative points of this widely debated issue. I hope, at the end, we can discuss your feelings towards deadlines.

We have been familiar with meeting deadlines for years; as students, full time writers, academic professionals, applying for grants and entering competitions. The pressing dates and times loom up at us from blackboards, diaries and, finally, the backs of our hands. But having dealt with them many times before, why do we have such a problem with them? We know all too well the late night library sessions and coffee fixes that bring us to the marvelous moments of getting it all done, and hopefully printed out before the doors are locked and everyone has gone home. We can work to deadlines, we know we can and our tutors know we can, albeit with a cloud of doubt that rears its head when we are at our lowest or busiest, or both. To address the realities of writing within our busy lives, I will be discussing the views of some of my fellow students and the many different deadlines that make up a writer’s life.

Whether it be in weeks, months or years we are given a stretch of time to play with and make our own. No one will demand anything of us until that moment. But it is also a devilish promise: Having agreed to such a time frame and having it lurking at the backs of our minds, it is easy to enjoy it all too much. It is a life of heady pleasure before we are called to judgment. Is this an effective way to write? I think it can be, and I will be explaining why later.

The creative process is unique to us all. Some write in the study, library, bath or nocturnally, and in our own way we get it done. The effects of the deadline can be intense, none more so than the reactions on the human body. But there are ways to manage the deadline – even working it to your advantage. The deadline is a cure to some and a curse to others.

Etymology

The word deadline is an old one and helps us to understand why people shrink from the idea of it. ‘Deadline’ comes from Civil War prisons where it meant the “do-not-cross” line, which was located “Seventeen feet from the inner stockade.” It was known as the dead-line (hyphenated), and “no man could pass and live”. (Lossing, 1868). It is more commonly associated with English and American 1920’s newspaper jargon.

I feel it is necessary to address negative reactions to the deadline, which most probably come from its original meaning.

The writer is asked to work to a deadline. This is unnatural, having not set it themselves. They become so stressed that they mistake fear for writer’s block. They change their method of approach, cutting corners, and exchanging quality for something hastily prepared and unchallenging. This is likely to result in career dissatisfaction and ultimately, the writer’s worst enemy: self doubt.

Under this kind of stress:
• Don’t stare at a blank screen waiting for inspiration to kick in. It won’t. Start typing the nuts and bolts of your work, the rest will follow. (Jim Souhan)
• Telling a colleague or friend about what you are writing forces you to put the idea into simple language. (Laura Lerner) This leaves you with a clear understanding of what your objective is.
• Allow the deadline to be your editor, motivating you to keep writing. (Jim Souhan) This may be particularly pertinent for freelance writers who do not benefit from the motivation of working alongside others.
• Impose your own deadline, prior to the real one. This allows for any technical glitches or substantial problems.

Writing to deadline is difficult enough when it is the only thing that needs to be done. But this is not realistic. Many writers need to dedicate time to their families. The majority of writers supplement their income one way or another by applying for grants, teaching, reviewing or entering competitions. Juggling commitments in this way puts pressure on a writing deadline.

I spoke to a number of people taking Creative Writing courses and a few talked about family commitments taking over their day and they had no choice but to attend to their families over their writing. If they did manage to meet the deadline, they would not be comfortable with the standard of their own work. Writing is not an easy thing to do when there are distractions. Writing is more about interpreting life than being perpetually alone. Writing and life must go hand in hand.

Professional writers and academics spoke of working eighteen hour days in order to manage writing with family life. One academic I spoke to rose at six in the morning to get some writing done before her small daughter woke up.

In this situation it is a good idea to:
• Explain your writing to your family so that they can understand your situation. They are far more likely to leave you alone when you are at the computer.
• If you can afford the time and money, check yourself into a hotel and work in peace. J.K. Rowling put this to good use to finish the Harry Potter series.
• Set up a working day, using the school hours as a guide, to work, instead of evenings and weekends.
• Join a writing group or online community, such as Protagonize. Groups such as this sometimes have forums and tips for effective writing, and will help to keep you motivated and stick to deadline.

Application forms for grants or funding demand a different kind of writing. It is necessary for the idea to be described succinctly and creatively if it is to catch the eye of the organisation. It is a good idea to have a friends read it through for you, to check that you have put across your idea in the correct way.

Entering competitions is difficult for writers who are working on a large piece. Short stories or poems demand a break from the longer piece, interrupting concentration. It also takes time to print copies and collate application forms for each competition. It is helpful to:

• Make a note of each competition in your diary with the entry date, deadline date and contact details. Do this well in advance so you know what is coming up and what the entry requirements are.
• Address the envelopes when you first hear about the competition. This effort will make you more determined to finish the job.
• Write down ideas as they come to you and review them when considering short stories or poems.
• Read winning entries. This will give you an idea of what you are up against and give you confidence that your work is what the judges are looking for.

Students

Even those with plenty of time on their hands may struggle or simply disagree with the deadline that has been set for them. It may be argued that art cannot be restricted and that inspiration comes as it pleases, not specifically when it is required to. It stands to reason that these deadline-detesters feel that their creative work is capped, and desire a more liberated experience. This is difficult to accomplish in an academic setting. A module on a university course, even if it is fully creative, must have marking criteria, rules of conduct and end of term evaluations. In my experience as an undergraduate and now a postgraduate student, it is often the case that students are more prepared to hand in work for the analytical module than the creative. Some students I spoke to viewed their creative work as more important than the analytical, fiercely guarding it from threatening reviews at workshop.

If you are in this group of writers I suggest that you:
• View analytical and creative modules as two sides to the same coin. What you learn from one, you can apply to the other.
• Again, talk about your work. Not everyone loves reading critical analysis, so talk it through instead. Allow discussion to come out of the classroom.
• Find something in the analytical module that you can apply to your own work. If there is nothing, then suggest that something new be included. Tutors are, in my experience, more than happy to accept ideas. One seminar group at Kingston had a majority of science fiction writers. The other members of the group wanted to spend a couple of weeks looking at chick-lit instead, which was granted. They said change in genre was highly successful as it provoked lively conversation.
• If you are presenting or reviewing at workshop make sure you are ready in advance. You need to gain as much from each workshop as possible so pick a week to present that is most realistic to your working methods. If you are reviewing, read it twice, in good time, before compiling notes. Consider this as benefiting your own writing, you can learn a lot from your peers.

Those who hate deadlines would be well-advised to adapt to a mode of writing that is suitable to their own personality. A longer lead-time perhaps or devising a routine that is easy to stick to. A writer must be perceptive of their own methods and not promise to deliver what and when they cannot. At the same time, we must all be careful not to, as Emile Zola warns, ‘forge one’s own style on the terrible anvil of deadly deadlines.’

Making the most of deadlines

Some people love deadlines, whether it brings about a good reaction in them or a difficult one, they are in favour of it. They are able to see a clear pathway to the finished product and do not allow obstacles to cloud their minds or dampen their enthusiasm. These are people who enjoy the surge of adrenaline in their veins. They know how to make the deadline work for them rather than the other way round.

As an undergraduate, I once wrote a piece calmly, methodically, and well within deadline. It was mediocre, and my tutor was disappointed.

Without meaning to, I began and completed a short story for submission during the night before it was due. The physical experience of writing under pressure was intense and highly beneficial. I got a first for that piece of writing. I feel that at short notice and under acute pressure I was able to push myself. I was forced to be natural and direct in my use of language. Waiting until I was wracked with anxiety forced me to communicate in a different way. Since then I have used this technique to my advantage. The writing I have produced under pressure of this kind has been more affective and praised.

The physical reactions that deadlines impose on the body may provide the answer to why they are beneficial. When we are under pressure, anxious, or worried, the hormone adrenaline comes into play and either forces us to act or run from our problems. This fight or flight response is extremely powerful, and arguably, helps us when facing a deadline. A gradual build up to a deadline produces adrenaline in small doses, keeping us on our toes. This readies us, gently, for the uncomfortable moments ahead. When a deadline is ignored until the last minute, a large amount of adrenaline is released into our bodies in a very short space of time. Our bodies do this in order to cope with the stress, and force us to act.

Tips to make deadlines more positive:
• Try out different methods, while you aren’t under a serious deadline experiment with a method you haven’t tried before.
• Take advice from people who have done it before.
• Make writing a more social activity by meeting at someone’s house to write. If you have both children this is an excellent way to make the most of your time. You can work while the children play.

As this paper has shown, people are individual in their reactions and will display very different behavior in the same situation. My final word is that it is important to find a way of working that best fits your needs and personality. If overnight stints in the library get your creative juices flowing and produce your best writing, then fine, but if they don’t, don’t be tempted to join in with this behaviour. Don’t ‘forge your own style on the terrible anvil of deadly deadlines.’

Bibliography

Primary Sources:

Writers and Artists Yearbook 2008, (London: A&C Black, 2007)
Dictionary of Quotations

Secondary Sources:

Bell, Julia and Paul Magrs, The Creative Writing Coursebook, (Basingstoke and Oxford: Macmillan, 2001)

Morley, David, The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)

Legat, Michael, An Author’s Guide To Publishing, (London: Robert Hale, 1998)

Websites:

http://www.artscouncil.org.uk
http://www.etymonline.com
http://freelanceswitch.com
http://www.notrain-nogain.org
http://www.nwcoaching.com
http://www.protagonize.com/
http://successfulwritingtips.com

Copyright Laura Bottomley 2008

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