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Monday, May 9, 2011

Why I've Never Missed a Deadline--and How You Can do the Same

I am nothing if not reliable. I never missed a deadline as an attorney, and I’ve never missed one as a freelancer either. And you better believe I use that as a selling point with clients I haven't worked with before.

So why haven't I missed a deadline? It's not because I'm a compulsive. (I admit it.) It's not because I'm a "type-A" personality. (I admit it.) It's for one simple reason: I’ve never taken a deadline I couldn't meet.

Before I accept an assignment, whether it's an article or a book, I estimate how long that story or project will take—not just the writing of it, but the research of it as well. A 1500-word piece that requires several expert interviews, for example, is likely to take less time to research than a shorter article that relies heavily on “real people” sources. (I’ve said before that I hate “real people.” Well, not real people in general, but real people sources. See, real people—aka anecdotal sources—take much more time to locate and identify than experts.)

I learned this lesson early on. When I accepted an article on the sexual problems newlyweds might face and how to address them, finding experts was a no-brainer. Then I had to find the dreaded “real people”—in this instance, newlyweds who had experienced some kind of sexual challenges and who had sought outside assistance for them. And who would, you know, talk to me about it! Can you think of anyone? Me neither.

While I had lined up sexual therapists to interview, privacy law prevents them from sharing their patients’ names. So I was stuck beating the proverbial bushes for possible sources—and spent weeks making calls, sending emails, and begging everyone I could think of to help me with the piece. I did eventually come up with some usable anecdotal sources--they did get to use pseudonyms--but it still took far longer than I expected. Six weeks, in fact. (My new rule: no more writing about sex.)

Back to deadlines. As I said, I’ve never missed a deadline because I always make sure I have plenty of time to research, report, and write the piece. Then I build in a bumper. If I think the assignment will take four days, I’ll ask for six. If I know I can bang it out in two weeks, I’ll try to get two and a half.

Get the idea? I know, considering my current assignments, that I’ll be able to meet my deadline before I say yes. Then I start the background research immediately—because after all, I can’t interview my sources until I’ve identified and located those sources. And I can’t ask them intelligent questions until I’ve done enough background so I’m conversant in the subject. I try to get my research, including completed interviews, done at least a week before the story is due.

That gives me plenty of time to write, and to do any additional research to address questions that crop up as I write the piece—before the deadline is huffing its fetid breath on the back of my neck.

I also use the “double-diary” system to make sure I don’t blow a deadline. I write down the assignment in my assignment notebook and then I make a note of it on my calendar. (Yes, you can use Outlook instead. I still like having a paper calendar that I can flip through and see what’s approaching in the days to come.)

So, before you say yes, make sure you can meet the deadline. If it’s going to be tight, ask for more time. And if you know you can’t take it on, turn it down and let your client know why. Better to turn down to work than to accept it--and then fail to deliver.


  1. Kelly: your philosophy is so simple, yet many freelancers find themselves over-committing because they don't take the time to think through the deadline first. I feel your pain on the "real people" sources. Recently a nonprofit referred me to a woman with a fascinating story for a woman's magazine article. They told me she was in her early forties, which was on the upper end of the magazine's readership, but I figured her story was so interesting that readers would enjoy it. Then when I interviewed her, I asked to verify her age and discovered that she's a bit further outside of the magazine's demographic so I had to find a new "real woman." I hated to do that but I also knew that my editor would insist on it. The struggle with "real people" sources (esp. for women's magazines) is that not only must they have a compelling story but they must also fit a certain demographic and be photogenic enough for the art directory's standards. Often you also have to find an ethnically diverse group of sources to satisfy the magazine's need for diversity, which adds another layer of difficulty. I don't blame you at all for focusing on expert sources!

  2. Thanks for your post, Susan! (And BTW, I'm still digesting all the good stuff from your ebook panel at ASJA. Extremely helpful.) I've been in the same position with a "real person" who wouldn't work out, because she wasn't attractive enough (in the eyes of my editor, anyway), and that just adds one more layer to the, um, challenge of finding anecdotal sources.

    I love real people, really...I just don't like having to find and interview them. :)

  3. I concur with starting the background research immediately--even if your deadline is months away. On a recent story, I had trouble finding an expert, had an expert get the flu and not get back with me when promised, and all sorts of issues. The story still got in on time, but it was tight.

  4. Thanks for commenting, Carol,and for showing why it's so smart to work far ahead of deadline. :)

  5. Appreciate this advice. I try to allow breathing room when I estimate but I think I need to rethink my process a bit. This will help, thanks!

  6. Glad to hear it, Karen. Thanks and hope the new process works for you.