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About Writing Right: The Blog

Deadline ... or Dead End?

When I was a kid going to college to learn to become a rich and famous novelist, I was stunned to learn that one of the pre-enrollment requirements for "Novel Writing 101" was "Journalism 101, 102, and 103." Not just one semester of learning to write what I had no intentions of using ever, but three!

I tried everything I could to bypass that requirement, including begging the head of the fiction department to give me a pass. Thank God he turned me down. Learning to write like a journalist (and think and talk and interview like one) was exactly the kind of iron-fisted self-discipline I needed to learn to apply to my fiction writing. And the single most essential thing I learned from those courses was how to write under deadline.

Writing when you're floundering, suffering from "writer’s block," or drifting aimlessly from one disconnected thought to another is damned frustrating. Writing when your mind is focused and your thoughts are clear is infinitely more productive. That’s what writing under the pressure of a deadline does for you. It removes the temptations of piddling the day away and places your entire focus on the act of creating. That, in turn, makes you feel good about yourself and your productivity, which in turn feeds the quality of your writing ad adfinitum.

Of course, not all writers use deadlines as motivational tools. Best-selling pop novelist Diana Gabaldon once quipped, "Let's put it this way: we have deadlines in my contracts because there's a space for them. I've never met [a deadline]. They get the book when I'm finished with it. They scream and tear their hair a lot .... But I have a much higher loyalty to my book than I do to any of them."

That may be fine for someone in her position, but what about the rest of us? Do deadlines really work, or don't they? Most definitely they do ... as long as you’re realistic in your expectations. You can't give yourself three days to write a hundred-thousand-word novel and expect anything good to come of it. And you can't announce a six-month deadline to produce five paragraphs of prose and expect that the deadline will motivate you to a higher literary plateau.

But when a deadline is carefully thought through and judiciously applied, it can guarantee your success. Among other things, a deadline will help you ...

1.) Put to death the notion of "writer's block." After all, if you have to put fingers to keyboard--even if it takes you a few minutes or even an hour or more to start turning out creditable copy--you're not blocked, are you? Talk to a hardened newspaper reporter about “writer’s block” sometime and see how he responds.

2.) Start and keep the juices flowing. I've known too many writers, including seasoned pros, who write a good page or even a graf or two and then take the rest of the afternoon off. They don’t realize that’s exactly when they should be prodding themselves onward. Writing that glows comes from writing that flows. Just the thought that you're writing, hour after hour, day after day, will flush you with satisfaction and show up in the increased quality of your writing.

3.) Keep your writing from going "stale" between sessions. Deadlines don't allow for idle time. Ask any general-assignment reporter. If a working journalist completes one story, it's only a quick slug of coffee and a half-smoked cigarette before he's started on the next.

4.) Reduce your writing into manageable chunks. Deadlines are easier to manage if you can create blocks of written words that fit neatly into corresponding periods of time. You might tell yourself you'll write the introduction of a book on needlepoint your first morning, then rewrite it and print it out that afternoon. The next chapter may take two days, since it may be longer, and so forth. The results are the same: you're writing regularly, which means you’re writing productively.

5.) Instill in you the joy of being a writer again. Writers love nothing better than to write. By writing under deadline, you can have that "God, this is terrific" feeling every single day for the rest of your life. And that kind of positive mental attitude can't help but spell literary success for anyone.

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