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Working Backward to Meet Deadlines
by Kathleen Ewing

There are people with day jobs who arrive for work every day five minutes late. They may never miss a day of work. Their work may be flawless, yet their bosses still regard them as unreliable because they are unable to be at their work station on time. It is just as easy to be five minutes early for work every day as it is to be five minutes late.

Likewise, it’s just as easy to be chronically early with a deadline as it is to be chronically late. And your success or failure as a writer often depends upon something as basic as meeting deadlines. No matter how excellent your product may be, once you’ve developed a reputation as someone who can’t deliver on time, you will have a difficult time convincing an editor to take a chance on your reliability.

Working backward is a technique I learned for creating a project time-line when I was a manufacturing engineer charged with on-time delivery of aerospace hardware for military priority “aircraft on the ground.” I have used this system for assignments both large and small in my work as a freelance writer. As a result, I have never missed a deadline.

  1. Print out blank calendars for the weeks or months between the day you get an assignment and the date the assignment is due. (Print your calendar from Microsoft Outlook, if you have it, or type “free calendar templates” into your web browser.) Use a brightly colored highlighter pen to mark your deadline. Put a large X on the day or draw a target, whatever catches your eye every time you look at the calendar. This deadline is not the date the editor must have your project, but the date you are actually going to send in your assignment. For a short deadline, especially one you will send by e-mail, this should be only a day or two early. For a lengthier project or one traveling by snail mail, your personal deadline should be ten days to two weeks before the editorial deadline.

  2. Forget about the editor’s deadline. It should appear only on your contract. The date you highlighted on your calendar now becomes your drop-dead due date. Period.

  3. On a separate page, list the various stages of your project—outlining, research or collecting data, interviewing, photography, writing the draft, rewriting, polishing. If you have a critique group, mentor or trusted colleague you wish to review your work, schedule that into the mix. If you like to allow the piece to sit untouched for a day or a week between rough draft and re-write or just before your polish it, add that as well.

  4. Arrange these stages in the chronological order they should occur and list alongside the items how many days or weeks you estimate each will require to complete. Be generous, especially in the early stages of project development. This will allow you time to explore possibilities that might not have occurred to you when you proposed the piece of work. If you don’t use the time in this area, you may need it in another facet later in the job.

  5. Start at your deadline and work backward. Position the last task on your list just before the deadline date on your calendar, the next to the last on your list before that and so on until you have laid out your project in reverse order, from end to beginning.

  6. Allow some of the tasks to overlap as they would naturally, such as interviewing, research and photography. Try not to pack too much into any one day or week. What looks achievable on paper may be deceptive. Be conservative with your calculations on what you can accomplish during a specific timeframe until you become more experienced at estimating your capabilities. You can’t afford to stall out from overwork midway through the project.

  7. If you are relying upon someone else to provide information, such as a quote or data from an expert, allow leeway. Don’t expect anyone else to share your sense of urgency about your deadline.

  8. Don’t expand the project. By allowing the project to grow beyond what you originally queried, you can sabotage your delivery date and possibly turn in something your editor will reject because it doesn’t adhere to your contract. Any extraneous material can be worked into another project for a different editor or perhaps a follow-up piece for your current editor.

  9. Now you have your milestones and the timeline in which you must achieve them—a production calendar. You can tinker with it, fine tune tasks and rearrange the sequences of those tasks. But you can’t change the deadline.

Just to be confident you are allowing yourself enough time to complete the project, you can do steps three through five before you agree to your editor’s deadline and sign the contract. If by working backward from your deadline you discover there is no way you are going to be able to deliver the project on time, this is the time to let the editor know, during the early planning stages, not four weeks into a six-week deadline. This heads-up will give the editor time to rethink the editorial calendar, substitute another piece or reschedule your piece for a later publication date.

If you want the editor to remember you when the juicy contracts come up for assignment in the future, you must meet your deadlines now. By working backward you will move your career forward.

© Copyright 2010, Kathleen Ewing

Kathleen Ewing is an award-winning freelance writer headquartered in Central Arizonas high country. Among her credits are feature articles for Art Calendar, American Falconry, Bend of the River, TrailBlazer and Hobby Farms magazines. Visit her blog at www.rodeowriter.blogspot.com

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