5 Tips to Meet Your Writing Deadlines

There's a rhythm to writing. A vibe. A flow. An energy. Sometimes you are in the zone: effort gives way to ease and the words pour from your fingers onto the page. But then there are the other days. The times when stringing together a single sentence feels like scaling a sheer wall of slate.

Unfortunately, deadlines don't wait for inspiration to strike. When you are being paid to deliver, you have to work within your limits and make the most of the time you have available. Here are five tips that may help you out:

1. Create closer deadlines

Whether freelance writing or working on a personal piece, a deadline that is too far in the distance does little to keep you on track. If a publisher wants 10 articles from you by the end of the month, create a series of closer deadlines that has you completing the articles throughout the month. Use the same approach for larger pieces or your own creative work, breaking down the project into more manageable deadlines that fall every few days.

While breaking down your projects into smaller chunks may be Time Management 101, it's an easy step to overlook. Just make sure you give your own deadlines as much weight as the "real" one given by your publisher, otherwise it becomes too easy to let them slide. Set rewards or punishments as needed to keep yourself on track.

2. Start with an outline

Any piece of writing can begin with an outline. The outline might be simple or complex, depending on the project, but it's a great way to get your thoughts together and your creative juices flowing.

For a simple online article, like this one, the outline might be something simple like:
1. smaller chunks
2. outline
3. skip lede
4. proof
5. timer
From there you can go back and fill in each piece or make changes as needed.

In a larger project, the outline might be a separate document that you can reference as needed. I like to use a spreadsheet (or multiple spreadsheets) which can be easily color-coded and sorted to see the highlights of my project (and my progress) at a glance.

3. Skip the lede

You may notice that the sample outline above starts with the word "INTRO." That's pretty typical of my freelance or blogging outlines. Sometimes an opening paragraph comes quickly--or may even be the inspiration for the whole piece--but more often the lede is the last thing I write.

Your lede paragraph is a hook. It draws readers in, and it also sets up the tone and scope of the piece. Trying to come up with a really good hook from the start is a great way to waste time and end up behind schedule.

Give yourself time to write the meat of the piece before worrying about how you will sell it. Once you know what you have covered in the body of the article, the lede often comes to you more naturally. Sometimes I even decide that a great line from the body of the piece would be an even better fit as an opening line.

4. Proof as you go

With creative writing, you often want to let go and write without restraint (until it is time to edit). But with freelance writing, speed and efficiency become more important. Given that payments usually come by the piece, not by the hour, it makes sense to save time by keeping your writing tight as you go.

While you will still want to reread the finished product from end to end, editing each sentence or paragraph as you are writing can help you speed up your work. I find that it helps me stay on topic and can even add some extra energy to my writing.

The caveat here is to not get too bogged down by a sentence or section that isn't quite right. Proofing as you go should involve skimming and quick changes. If you feel stuck in a particular place, you have two choices: go back to rework your outline or keep writing and come back to fix the line later.

Practice and experience will make it easier to learn what to edit on the fly and what to pin for a second look once the draft is completed.

5. Track your time

Setting a time limit on writing can really help pick up your pace. When writing freelance pieces, I use an app to "clock-in" and track my actual time writing. I don't use the time for billing (since I'm generally paid by the article), but I do use it to track my own time and see which projects tend to take longer to research and write.

Setting a timer keeps me from getting distracted by other things--like shiny Internet things. If I make myself stop the clock any time I'm not actively working on the project (researching, writing or editing), my distractions and "mini-breaks" become more obvious and harder to justify.

Writing against a clock also makes the writing experience more energetic and challenging. There's an inherent reward in "beating" a past words-per-hour record or in finishing ahead of an average time. Just make sure that faster writing doesn't lead to sloppy writing and that you still edit at a careful pace.

For some people, deadlines take the creative joy out of writing. For others, they provide useful motivation. However you feel, deadlines are a reality of working as a professional writer. Find a way to embrace them and make them part of your process.

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