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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Freelance Mistake #5: Missing a Deadline

Back to freelance mistakes...today's is missing a deadline.

Several years ago, one of my regular editors called me with an emergency. She needed a 1,500-word story turned around in just a few days. Why? She'd originally assigned the story to a freelancer she'd worked with before. Well, the writer never turned in the piece ... and never returned the editor's calls or emails. Ever! I don't know what happened to this writer (I do know she was still alive), but I know she'll never work for my editor again. Regardless of what happened, she could have called or sent a quick email to the editor to tell her she couldn't complete the assignment rather than dodging her calls.

Don't be this writer. Don't blow a deadline.

In 14+ years of freelancing, I've never missed a deadline—for one simple reason. I've never taken on a deadline I couldn't meet! Meaning—I will (and I must) turn down work when I know I won't be able to complete it in the time allowed. Before I accept an assignment, I always make sure that I've built in enough time to research and write the article or book—and I assume that each step of the process will take a little longer than planned.

The first step to making every deadline is to ask for more time than you think you'll need to complete the project. Next, get started on the background research, including identifying potential sources, as soon as possible. You can't interview your sources until you know who they are—and the earlier you get cracking on this essential aspect of researching the topic, the better.

If a problem develops along the way, don't wait until the last minute to let your editor know. For example, with a recent story, I was having trouble reaching an essential source. I called my editor, and explained the situation. She told me to "keep trying," but agreed to push the deadline back a few days if necessary. After more than a half-dozen more calls, I was finally able to rope him into an interview. Happily, I made the original deadline—but I had more time if I'd have needed it.

Get up early, stay up late, miss sleep if you have to. But if it's becoming clear that you absolutely are not going to make a deadline, let your editor know as soon as you do. Offer her some alternatives. Can you finish the piece if she gives you an extra couple of days? An extra week? If that's not possible, can you at least hand over your research or suggest another writer who can easily step up and take it over? You've screwed up, so address the issue and be as helpful as you possibly can be. With luck and professionalism, a missed deadline won't mean a broken relationship as well.

What about you? Have you been faced with a deadline you couldn't meet? How did you handle it?