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Deadlines: The King of the Writing Business

When I worked in journalism there was one principle that was so important that we never talked about it. Does that sound like an oxymoron? If it was important wouldn’t we have talked about it all the time? No, because it was just assumed—always—that news people would adhere to this principle. I’m writing, of course, about meeting deadlines, which was the king of the newsroom. (Money and accuracy are also writing kings; those matters are beyond the scope of this article.)

Why is it critically important to meet deadlines?

When newspapers or other print publications are laid out, advertisements are the first items to go on a page. Then as stories come in and are edited they are added to the pages. Of course, there are sometimes stories that are not expected to be submitted until close to the deadline, often because an event the writer is covering takes place late in the day or late in the publishing cycle. So editors leave space, called a hole, on the page for that story. If a writer fails to submit a story—or submits it past the deadline—that obviously leaves the editor with a big problem. He just can’t publish pages with blank space.

For broadcast writing, whether TV or radio, the situation is the same. The person whose responsibility it is to fill content—this person’s title varies, according to what broadcast outlet we’re referring to—leaves time available for a story. So a reporter can’t call 10 minutes before the story is to air and say, “By the way, you know that story I’m working on? It’s not going to be ready on time.” That would leave the recipient of the phone call scrambling to fill the time, and because broadcasts are timed down to the split second, he or she probably won’t be able to find another story of the exact length needed. Needless to say, that person will not be happy.

These scenarios just cannot happen. In both cases, the necessity of meeting the deadline is so important it’s not even mentioned. No one ever says, “Be sure to get your story done by the deadline.” It’s simply assumed the reporter will. But it’s not only in the news business that deadlines are sacrosanct. If you’re a book author and tell your editor your story will be ready by March 1 it needs to be ready. Period. Or if you’re an editor and tell the author the story will be edited by March 17 it must be done. Again, period. Wise writers and editors set deadlines and meet them. There’s simply no alternative. Even if you’re a self-published writer, it’s prudent to set deadlines, if for no other reason besides motivation. Also, other professionals, such as your book cover designer, may be waiting for your content. Be respectful to them by meeting your agreed-on deadline.

So what should you do if you’re a writer who can’t meet a deadline? Well, first, meet the deadline. But alas, sometimes life interferes and you really can’t. Second, have a darn good reason. If you can’t meet a deadline—like you’re in the hospital with three broken legs (a mere two broken legs isn’t enough of an excuse)—let the editor know ASAP and tell her when you will be able to finish the story. Third, suggest alternatives, such as recommending another writer who can finish the job. Or depending on the nature of the story and the amount of work you’ve done, it might be possible for the publication to run whatever you did finish. (Don’t suggest the editor finish the story herself. That’s not her job.)

Whether you’re a writer or an editor, not meeting a deadline is a sure way to infuriate the person you’re letting down. If you’re a freelance writer or editor you won’t get more work from that person. If you’re an employee you’ll get called into the boss’ office for a closed-door meeting. On the other hand, editors love writers who always have stories done on time, writers love editors who always edit their story by the agreed-on time, and bosses love employees who meet deadlines.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Joe Wisinski