Never Miss a Deadline: Seven Foolproof Techniques to Stay on Top of Your Writing Assignments
Many types of writing come with deadlines … and missing a deadline has consequences.
- If you’re at school, handing in a homework assignment late could mean detention.
- If you’re at university, missing an essay deadline could mean that you’re docked marks.
- If you’re a freelancer, turning in work late for your client might mean you miss out on future work.
- If you’re in full-time employment as a writer, missing deadlines could mean you lose out on a promotion.
- If you’re a short story writer, missing a competition deadline means you might well have to wait another year to enter.
- If you’re a novelist, missing a deadline could mean you have to wait a lot longer for your editor to have a free slot again.
No one wants to miss deadlines – but, of course, it’s hardly unheard of.
So how can you make sure that you never miss a deadline and that you stay on top of your work?
How Deadlines Get Missed
Writers rarely start out intending to miss deadlines. We usually all have great intentions of completing and delivering work on time.
So what goes wrong?
It could be a number of things, but some common reasons for missing deadlines are:
#1: You Forgot About the Deadline
Perhaps you agreed to a deadline by email … then forgot all about that piece of work. If you don’t have a system for keeping track of incoming work and deadlines, you might think that you’ll remember everything – until you hit a busy week and something completely slips your mind.
#2: You Thought the Deadline Was Later
Sometimes, you might miss a deadline because you thought the deadline was later than it really was. Perhaps you wrote it down in the wrong week on your calendar, or maybe the deadline changed and you failed to record this.
#3: You’re Overwhelmed With Work
Maybe you remembered the deadline, wrote it down correctly, kept track of it … and yet you had so many other deadlines that you couldn’t manage to finish your piece on time. If you have too much to do, it’s almost inevitable that you’re going to end up missing a deadline at some point – even if you work late into the evenings, you may hit a point where you simply can’t get everything done.
#4: You Procrastinated for Too Long
Most writers procrastinate at least a little bit, putting off writing because there are so many easier things to do. But if you procrastinate a lot, that can potentially lead to missed deadlines. Even if you’re someone who is spurred on by a looming deadline, if you’ve only allowed yourself just enough time, even a small unexpected interruption or delay can lead to you missing the deadline.
#5: You Got Ill (or Had to Care for an Ill Family Member)
Everyone gets ill sometimes. Perhaps you have a chronic health condition that flares up – or you simply come down with an occasional cold. Getting ill can easily derail a deadline, as can caring for an ill family member. Most clients will be very understanding and accommodating in these circumstances, but you still ideally want to be far enough ahead with deadlines that you’ll be able to meet them anyway.
How to Stay On Top of All Your Writing Assignments
So how can you keep on top of everything and avoid ever missing a deadline?
Different things work for different freelancers, but I’ve found all of these helpful at different times. Feel free to mix and match them to suit your own workflow and preferences.
#1: View All Your Deadlines in One Place
Have a clear and simple way to see all your deadlines at once. Writing them on a wall calendar, or having a weekly/monthly view in your task management system of choice, can let you spot potential issues – like two big deadlines in the same week or even on the same day.
If you don’t have an easy way to see all your deadlines on one page or screen, then make a regular point of looking through your next couple of weeks’ worth of deadlines, in case there’s anything you need to plan to get ahead with.
#2: Record Writing Assignments As Soon As You Receive Them
Get into the habit of recording assignments in your system as soon as they come in. Don’t just email or comment to agree to the assignment: write it down first. That might sound obvious, but it’s something I know I sometimes struggle with when I’m racing through emails or trying to get back to people quickly.
If an assignment’s deadline changes, make sure you update your record too: again, it’s easy to miss doing this when you’re hurrying through emails.
Tip: If you’re worried you might be missing some assignments, do a quick search through your email (or however your clients get in touch) for each of your clients’ names.
#3: Do a Daily or Weekly Check of Your Key Clients
Whatever sort of writing you do, you probably have a fairly small number of potential sources of assignments.
Right now, with my freelancing, I have seven clients (several of whom only send occasional assignments). It doesn’t take very long to search my email inbox, and their various task management systems, to make sure I’ve not missed anything.
You might be studying several different modules or classes at university, and each might give you assignments. Again, you could easily and quickly check through the information for that course (in email, an online learning portal, or however tasks are assigned) on a regular basis.
Of course, the hope is that your task management system – whether digital or paper – is working perfectly for you, and you haven’t missed anything. But it never hurts to double-check!
#4: Set Yourself an Earlier Deadline
Let’s say your client wants a 2,000 word blog post by Friday 25th. You might set yourself a deadline of Wednesday 23rd for that piece, aiming to get it done a couple of days early.
This gives you some leeway in case something else happens – whether good or bad! We’ve focused above on things going wrong, but things going right could also cause issues with deadlines – like another client getting in touch with an urgent project. When you’re ahead with other pieces, you can more easily take on extra work.
If all goes smoothly, and your piece is done two days ahead, you can hand it over to your client early! I’ve never had a client object to receiving work ahead of time. 😉
#5: Break Big Projects Into Smaller Chunks
I’ve deliberately structured my freelance work to mainly take on short assignments – the longest pieces I write are blog posts of about 4,000 words (and those are always straightforward ones on topics I know well).
In the past, though, I sometimes tackled bigger projects like whole ebooks for my clients. And of course way back when I was at university, I had long and involved assignments.
With any project that takes more than a few hours, it’s worth splitting it into smaller chunks. This makes it easier to estimate how long it’s going to take, and helps you stay on track. It’s also a helpful tool if you need to suggest a deadline, as you’ll have a better idea of how much work that task is going to be.
#6: Keep Some Empty Time on Your Weekly Schedule
If you can – I know this is easier said than done! – it’s a great idea to keep a few hours of your weekly schedule free. Don’t cram in as many writing tasks as you can: instead, keep a morning or afternoon clear to allow for any problems.
Chances are, something will go awry during your workweek. Maybe an assignment that you thought would take two hours takes three – or you end up making more revisions than you expected to a piece you wrote the previous week. Perhaps your internet connection goes down and you spend an hour troubleshooting it.
Having a bit of slack in your schedule means you can more easily hit your deadlines – without having to work late nights, or let everything else fall apart. If you do end up keeping that time free: great! You might want to try some of these ideas for freelancers between projects.
#7: Let Clients Know As Soon As You Can If You’re Going to Miss a Deadline
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you might realise that you’re not going to be able to meet a deadline. If that does happen, get in touch with your client as soon as you can. Let them know (briefly) what’s going on and tell them a new deadline you can commit to.
If you’ve got a choice of which deadline to miss – then pick one that you know isn’t likely to inconvenience your client too much. With my clients, for instance, I know that some have tasks that need to be completed on time for their clients. With others, there’s a deadline because of their internal workflow – but the post is going out on their own blog and could be delayed without much disruption.
Missing a deadline definitely isn’t a career-ending disaster – and some freelancers muddle along fine, despite a rather cavalier attitude to deadlines.
But if you want repeat work from your clients, and referrals to their friends, you definitely want to be on top of your deadlines.
Missing deadlines – or cutting it very close – is stressful. It might mean turning in work that you’re not really happy with, or sacrificing important things like sleep or family time.
I hope the ideas above help you to stay on top of your deadlines, and I’d love to hear any additional tips you have: just add them in the comments below.
I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
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