A Writer’s Guide to Managing Deadline Pressure

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Remember the movie The American President, starring Michael Douglas and Annette Benning (one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time)? At one point in the film, Douglas (as the U.S. President running for re-election) gives a riveting speech to reporters about character. Afterward, his press secretary (played by Michael J. Fox) rushes to rewrite the President’s State of the Union Address – with only 35 minutes before the scheduled speech. Talk about a pressure-packed deadline!

While those kind of tight deadlines don’t happen often in a writer’s life, deadlines in general are part of the process. Most of the time we can handle those deadlines without feeling stressed or anxious. But other times, the pressure to perform under strict deadlines can be a challenge.

How do we manage to stay calm and focused on the project at hand while the deadline hangs over our heads like a guillotine blade?

Examined closely, this question can be divided into two separate issues. How are we able to deal with  the deadline themselves? How are we able to deal with the stress and anxiety it produces (stress management)? Looked at another way, the anxiety we feel about deadlines may have more to do with feelings of insecurity about our ability to do the job than about the project itself.

One online dictionary defines deadline pressure as “the sense that there’s a shortage of time to complete a project, producing feelings of anxiety and stress.”

That begs the question: is deadline pressure a management issue, or a stress management issue?

If there’s a silver lining at all, it’s that deadline pressure is a universal experience that affects all industries, not just writers and creative professionals. Accountants and finance people have year-end reports to file, and tax attorneys must prepare tax returns by April 15. Manufacturers must produce large quantities of their product before clients run out of stock. Hospitals race against time to find the perfect match for a patient that needs a new heart or kidney.

Deadlines are not the enemy. It’s our attitude about them that slows us down. While too many deadlines at one time can make us feel overwhelmed, deadlines can be motivating tools too, writes  Psychologist Dr. Christian Jarrett. Without them, students may never finish their homework on time. Deadlines, he concludes, can help increase focus and boost perseverance.

If deadlines can help us meet goals and stay motivated, then why do most people struggle with the pressure? More important, how do we deal with that pressure so it doesn’t adversely affect our work?

Ironically, it may be our organizational skills that can keep the pressure to perform in check. Here are a few tips that have worked for me.

1. Set up a schedule for your project. Start with your deadline, and work backward toward the current date. In your schedule, allow for time for research, time for outlining, time to write the first draft and time to rewrite and proof before submitting it.

2. Start your project as early as possible. Granted, you may have other projects you’re working on. Try spending an hour doing the initial planning and research. Don’t wait until the last minute! Spending a brief time thinking about what you plan to write can give you a head start toward your deadline.

3. Divide your project into bite-sized chunks. This will allow you to work on your project a little bit at a time. You’ll make slow and steady progress. When you know you’re making progress and seeing the results of your efforts each day, you’ll feel less stressed.

4. Set short, intermediate deadlines. Allow an hour to perform certain tasks related to your project. Maybe it’s sending out a bunch of emails to set up interviews, conduct background research or draft an outline. When you know you have one hour to work, you’d be amazed at how much you can accomplish.

Most important, don’t wait for the last minute to begin your project! I know I said that once before, but I needed to say it again because it’s soooooo important.

As for the emotional aspect of deadline pressure, here are a few things you can do to keep yourself centered.

  • Breathe deeply. Take a few deep breaths before diving into your project. Following your breath will allow you to slow down your thought processes, and consequently, reduce your anxiety. Repeat this every time you feel stressed about the project.
  • Trust your instincts. When you’re racing toward a deadline, dealing with a difficult task or trying to solve a problem, sometimes the instincts kick in. Trust them. They’re usually spot on.
  • Trust your abilities. You know you have talent, you have experience and you’ve trained well in your chosen field. Once you’ve done your research and prepared your notes, trust your ability to get the project done on time. When you have confidence in your abilities, it takes a lot of the stress and panic out of the process.
  • Manage your time well. Doing small tasks each day will produce better results than a marathon at the finish line.
  • Give yourself a break. If you’re really feeling stuck, walk away from the project for an hour. Go for a walk or take a snack break or watch TV to get your mind off of the problem. When you come back an hour later, you may notice a solution that you didn’t see before.

There may be another aspect of deadline pressure to consider: performance anxiety. There’s a pressure to perform at your highest level, usually because something is at stake – a grade at the end of the semester, winning a new client or repeat business, or a coveted promotion. Meeting that deadline shows you are serious about your work.

For more great tips about writing under deadline, check out this article courtesy of the Public Relations Society of America.

Deadlines will never go away, and neither will the pressure. If you plan your time well, you’ll meet deadlines with greater confidence and less stress.

Screenwriting: A Visual Form of Storytelling

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With the 2019 Academy Awards set to take place this Sunday night, I thought it would be interesting to look at two of its more overlooked categories – Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay – from the perspective of writing. An original screenplay is written completely from the writer’s imagination. It may be inspired by true events, but the screenplay is developed organically. There’s no other model that it borrows from.

An adapted screenplay, on the other hand, is recreated from another source, such as a play, a novel or a short story. Think of the Harry Potter book series, which was written by J.K. Rowling but was adapted to the big screen in a series of eight films. Adapted screenplays may even have been produced as a film previously, such as A Star Is Born. But excellence in screenplay writing is no guarantee of winning Best Picture honors. Last year’s Best Picture, The Shape of Water, did not win the Best Original Screenplay category, though it was nominated.

What I love most about these screenplay categories is that they honor the writers, the people who work diligently behind the scenes to create the dialogue, the setting, the action, and the characters in ways that can be visualized on the big screen. These awards may be largely overlooked by most of the public, but Hollywood insiders understand how vital they are to a film’s success. Audiences will never know who these people are, but the actors and directors holding Oscar in their arms will likely give a shout out to these folks, thanking them for writing a “brilliant script.”  Without a strong screenplay to start with, a movie director won’t have much of a story to tell. Conversely, no amount of directing or acting can save a poorly developed screenplay.

So how do screenplays differ from novels? What elements do they need to tell the story? What makes some of them Oscar-worthy, while others wind up in the trash bin?

According to Screencraft.org, a screenwriting consultancy, screenplays differ from novels in several different ways.

Screenplays have fewer pages than novels – A typical screenplay runs 100-120 pages while novels can be several hundred pages. That’s because the bulk of the screenplay is made up of dialogue and condensed action, whereas the novel provides much more detailed narrative and backstory.

Screenplays are dialogue-focused – Dialogue is the vehicle that drives the story’s action forward. Dialogue is used generously to reveal plot lines, conflict and character. In novels, dialogue and action are separate entities. In screenplays, dialogue IS the action.

Screenplays contain condensed action – With only 110 pages to work with, writers need to establish characters and setting within the first page or two. There isn’t time to delve into backstory. And they must do it using dialogue.

Screenplays place less emphasis on narrative – Novels have a ton of detail, much of it contained in backstory and narrative. However, screenplays don’t have that luxury. Viewers aren’t privy to a character’s thoughts as they might be if they are reading the book, so they have to experience the story through the characters’ actions and speech. The only exception to this might be the use of voice over which can help reveal the narrator’s perspective (a technique used in Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper).

Screenplays are more genre-specific
– According to Screencraft.org, novels may overlap several genres. Harry Potter, for example, is often described as young adult, fantasy, coming of age and family-friendly, among other things. But a screenplay that attempts to do all of it may be deemed complicated and confusing by Hollywood types, not worthy of their time. Screenplays may achieve more success by sticking to one specific genre, such as romantic comedy OR suspense, but not both.

Screenplays may have fewer characters and subplots than novels
– Because of the condensed format, it may not be possible to include all the characters that are part of the original story into a screenplay. It’s common to combine two characters into one, or eliminate characters all together if they are not integral to the story.

When it comes to screenwriting, writers need to think creatively and economically. They have to tell their story succinctly, using dialogue as a vehicle to drive the action. They have to think about the economy of characters, and they have to think about the complexity of setting. A setting in one or two locales will be easier and less costly to produce than a story set in multiple locations.

With so much to consider, a screenwriter’s job is far more challenging than meets the eye. It makes you truly appreciate the nominated films in the screenplay categories – and the creative geniuses who brought them there.