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.

Making Collaborations Work

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I’ve been reading about collaborations a lot lately. I have never collaborated on a creative fiction project myself; I’m far more comfortable getting my own ideas published. But for many writers and creative professionals, collaborations are a means to expand their business opportunities.

The truth is, writers and other creative professionals have been joining forces to create new innovative products for years. Sometimes these collaborations work; many times they don’t. There are numerous reasons why writers would want to seek collaboration on a project. They may want to experiment with a different genre of writing but don’t have the experience or the confidence to pursue it. A collaborator can bring that perspective.

Another reason for collaboration may be the size of the project. It may be too large for one person to handle on their own. In that case, a collaborator can share the responsibility — and the rewards. Yet another reason is the challenge it brings. Many writers may relish the thought of working with another person because they feel the process makes them a better writer.

If you decide to pursue a collaboration, keep an open mind. It’s important to be open to new ideas and not get locked into your own.

According to Joanna Penn at the Creative Penn blog, it helps to have a clear idea from the start what kind of project you and your collaborator are working on and to set parameters for making progress. Lack of proper planning can derail the project before it even gets off the ground. You both need to be on the same page to move the project plan forward.

Here are a few words of advice from writers who’ve been part of successful collaborations.

1. Work with someone you already know. When you know someone, you are familiar with their strengths as a creative, their personality, their ideas, work habits and more. It’s much easier to get on the same page when you know who you are dealing with. While it’s not a requirement, it can be helpful to work with someone you already know. When you don’t know the other person as a writer or collaborator, you have to start from ground zero in getting to know how they work, and more important, whether you can work with them at all. It might be helpful to start on a small project like a play or novella before embarking on a larger project.

2. Start slow and plan you project ahead of time. Don’t begin writing right away. Plan out what you want to create, though you don’t need every detail outlined. Outline what each of you will be responsible for during the project. A simple sketch with your story ideas and characters might be sufficient. Once you start writing, keep working at a steady pace. Put a schedule in place with incremental deadlines and a final publication deadline. Having a clear plan of action with deadlines can keep you and your collaborator on track to meet your goals.

3. Be clear about the story concept. Define your genre. Is it historical fiction, an international thriller or a fantasy series for young adults? Penn says it can be tempting to do a mash up of different genres to please different audiences, but that can result in a confusing product. Instead, choose one and do it well. When you focus on one specific genre, it will be easier to market it to consumers.

4. Communicate clearly and often. You may be working at opposite ends of the country, so it’s important to have frequent communication to update each other on progress, says writer Jeff Somers in Writer’s Digest magazine. Set aside time each week or every other week to check in with each other to see how the work is progressing and resolve any problem areas before they derail the project. 

There are other important tips to consider. 

1. Be respectful of each other. You each bring something special to the table – your skill level, writing experience, etc. If you find yourself encroaching on the other person’s space, take a step back and allow them room to work their own magic. Likewise, if you find they are encroaching on yours, politely ask that they give you time to work your own writing magic. There’s no room for egos when you collaborate.

2. Embrace different ways of working even if they make you feel uncomfortable. The new processes may actually help you see past writing problems that have stumped you before. Learning new processes through collaborative efforts may even help you become a better writer.

3. Speak up if the project seems to stall or doesn’t seem to be going well. Don’t let resentment simmer in the background or boil over, Somers says. Address issues as soon as they arise.

4. Take time to celebrate milestones and successes. When you complete that first book in your fantasy series, or get that contract, celebrate that success. Then get back to work. Most important, have fun.

5. Don’t be afraid to walk away. If you find you cannot work with this person or a stalemate has occurred, walking away from it may be your best option. You may have to weigh the pros and cons of doing so. For example, if you received an advance from a publishing company, you may have to find a way to complete the project. Honor your obligations. But if you don’t have any restrictions and this is simply a creative experiment that clearly is not working out, by all means, walk away and chalk it up to experience.

Remember, for all the success stories about collaborations that fill the Internet, there are still many others that have failed. In any partnership or relationship, sometimes you have to set aside your ego to let the relationship flourish. The same is true for collaboration. If you enter it with the right mind set, the end result may be a product you can be proud of.

Have you ever collaborated on a creative project? What was your experience like? I’d love to hear about them.

How to Juggle Multiple Writing Projects Without Losing Your Sanity

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Like most writers I know, I tend to work on several different writing projects at one time. In addition to writing this blog, I’m currently writing a novel, I have several essays in various stages of completion, and I just completed a freelance writing assignment for a client. The work certainly keeps me busy, but sometimes it can be difficult to keep them all straight. If I decide to work on one project, it means I can’t give my attention to the others.

Add to that all the extra administrative and marketing work that goes along with writing for a living, and you can see how easy it is to get overwhelmed.

There’s a constant struggle to maintain balance in my work schedule. Every morning, I ask myself, “Which piece should I work on today?” It’s a problem I don’t mind having because the alternative is spending hours in an office doing work that sucks the life out of my soul.

However, managing multiple projects does have a few upsides, writes author Heather Webb at the Writer Unboxed blog. It alleviates “manuscript fatigue,” she says. Switching between projects prevents you from getting too tired of one project. After a few days away from it, you can come back to it with fresh eyes.”

Having multiple projects also takes the pressure off of trying to create the “perfect” piece, Webb adds. Since you’re not putting all your eggs in one basket, you have more freedom to experiment with your writing. That can only help you produce better quality writing.

Managing multiple projects has its upsides, but it has plenty of challenges too.

Challenge 1:  There’s a limited amount of time to work on any one project.

When you’re working on several stories at once, you don’t have as much time to work on each of them as you’d like. Obviously, the paid work comes first because there are deadlines, and if you don’t make those deadlines, you don’t get paid. Once you submit your paid piece and return to an essay that’s closer to your heart after an extended time away from it, it can be difficult to get back into the flow of the story again. You can begin to feel disconnected from the story altogether.

Solution:  Re-read the last chapter of your novel, the beginning of the essay or review your notes. These are obvious starting points that will allow you to pick up the thread of the action. With fresh eyes, you might even resolve a plot point or come up with a new character.

Challenge 2:  Characters and story lines can blend in with one another.

Sometimes characters and protagonists begin to blend in with one another when you switch from one story to the next too often. This is even more disconcerting if those stories happen in different cities or eras of history.

Solution: Much like challenge #1, re-read the previous scenes to get inside the character’s mindset, or as Webb suggests at the Writer Unboxed blog, try journaling in the character’s voice to get inside their head again.

Challenge 3:  Creative burnout can occur.

When working on many projects, or worse, when you’re up against multiple deadlines, things can get a bit crazy. Working at that level of creativity for too long can produce creative burnout, writes Mark McGuinness, author of Productivity for Creative People (a book I definitely must read). That’s not a sustainable routine for the long term. (See this article in The Write Life for details.)

Solution:  Create a sustainable workload by limiting yourself to two to four writing projects to keep yourself sane. Make a list of the most important activities you need to work on, such as client work, family obligations and recurring tasks. These activities form the base for your time obligations. Next fill in what’s left – your spare time – with one or two writing projects. That approach, says McGuinness, will give you the time and space you need to work on what’s important to you while keeping you sane.

While it’s easy for writers and creative professionals to have several projects going on at the same time, it’s not so easy to manage them efficiently without ruining your life. When you set priorities and allow some downtime to transition between stories, you can manage multiple writing projects with greater ease and better results.