Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Deadlines

Freelancer's Survival Guide On Writing


Artwork donated by Pati Nagle.

The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Deadlines

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s the problem with waiting until the last minute to do something: the day arrives and it is the worst possible day to do that thing. Take today, for example. I have a migraine, I didn’t sleep much, it’s the hottest day of the year so far, and we’re still moving. In fact, we slated today to do a lot of the major moving, so I’ve been picking, lifting, walking, and cleaning for the past six hours with only one break for dinner, which I inhaled.

I’m still cleaning—as I write this, the washing machine is humming and so is the dishwasher (with its third load)—because once you move something from Point A to Point B, you realize just how dirty Point A has gotten and how you couldn’t stomach putting that thing away in Point B until the thing is clean. So there will be more picking, lifting, walking and cleaning tomorrow, but at least tomorrow, I don’t have to end the day writing a segment of the Freelancer’s Guide.

If I fall asleep while writing this…well, you’ll never know except that the Gone Fishing notice will be on the website tomorrow. The greater danger is that my brain will shut off, which it does with an audible clunk (at least, it’s audible to me). Then you will notice, because my aphasia will kick in and while I’ll have perfectly spelled words in this piece, they won’t be the right ones in the right order.

Normally, I work ahead of the deadline. I thought of doing that this week, considering we had the move today, but I figured I wouldn’t need to do so. I hadn’t counted on six-plus hours, a migraine, and heat. (Well, to the rest of you: warmth. It rarely gets above 70 here, and today it did. So for us, that’s hot. For most of you in August, that’s cool.) I didn’t plan as well as usual.

I have had a couple of deadline issues this week. Writing isn’t a science—if it were, every publishing company would only publish bestsellers. I always plan to revise or redraft (write new from scratch) whenever I turn in an assigned piece. So I try to turn in those pieces early just in case something goes wrong.

This past week, my strategy paid off. I turned in a story which the editor hated. It’s a damn fine story, but oh, did it miss the anthology’s mark. It’s already in the mail elsewhere. But now, I have to write an entirely new, more suitable story for that anthology. If I had pushed the deadline like I have with this column, I would have missed out entirely. I wouldn’t get my second (or third) chance at the anthology.

Instead, I turned in my story two months early—three if you figure that most editors build in a month’s lag time for those silly writers who are always late. I will get my second chance.

There are other benefits to meeting a deadline early. One of my writer friends turned in her second series novel on time. Some other writer missed a deadline, so my friend’s novel has been moved on the publishing schedule to a much better publication date.

Another benefit? More work. Often, I get extra work because I write well fast (some writers don’t) and I meet deadlines. So remember those writers I mentioned who are always late? If one of them misses a short story deadline, and the anthology editor still needs to fill space, he calls me. Sometimes I will have two and three stories in an anthology under various (and occasionally secret) pen names, mostly because other writers can’t seem to get off their butts.

(Which might be a problem for me tonight as well, considering how my muscles have started seizing up.)

So, since I’m thinking about deadlines, let’s take a look at them and how they apply to all freelancers.

In some professions, deadlines are easy. In retail, the only deadlines that happen every day are your opening and closing times. It’s important to hold fast to those times, because you’ll lose customers who get disgusted when you’re not open at 10 a.m. (like you said you’d be) or have closed two hours early because you got bored. That’s the quickest way to kill a retail business.

The other deadlines in retail don’t apply to all shops. If you celebrate the holidays, then you need to get your holiday merchandise out by a particular date. (As I write this, the “holiday” is back to school and all the shops are stocked with notebooks and pens and backpacks and gadgets that didn’t even exist when I was in school. There will be a short breather (very short) and then the Halloween stuff will appear, and I will have to guard my pocketbook, because I tend to buy little ghostie and vampiry doodads by the dozens (and I don’t want to move them from one place to another).

Book retailers have to place new books out on the publication date, not before, and not after. Some books get embargoed, meaning the bookseller isn’t even supposed to open the box until the day of publication. But those are usually highly anticipated books, and who can blame the bookseller for taking a peek for his own personal reading pleasure? Certainly not me.

But, for the most part, the deadlines in retail are the same deadlines that other businesses have: paying the bills, the employees, and the taxes on time. Otherwise, if you own your own shop, you work in a relatively deadline-free environment.

I can’t think of many other professions that can claim that. Of course, many of those professions have a different name for the deadline. Doctors and dentists have appointment schedules. Deadlines don’t come into play unless treatment needs proper timing.

Lawyers also have appointment schedules, but they also have real deadlines, particularly if they are trial lawyers. The court sets the deadlines and a lawyer misses them at his (and his client’s) peril. That’s why trial lawyers can disappear from their daily life for months at a time, as they prepare witnesses, go over evidence, and plan strategy for the really big trial. And many lawyers don’t sleep much during that time either, because the lawyer has to be in his chair when court begins in the morning or he faces punishment from the judge for delaying everyone else.

A lot of professions have non-performance penalties. If you’re a tax accountant and you miss filing deadlines, you can get fined. Contractors have time-overruns built into their bids, but if they go too far over, they risk fines or penalties or loss of revenue from the client.

Some professions are constrained by time on both ends. A contractor can’t work 24/7 on a project, like Dean did on one writing deadline. The law doesn’t allow it, for one thing (most towns have ordinances prohibiting noise during the hours between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.) and generally speaking, the client wouldn’t like it either. Not to mention the union regulations and the labor law restrictions on many folks who own their own businesses.

So when contractors bid on a project they have to know reasonably well how much time that project will take. The deadlines matter for the client—so the client knows when he’ll have use of his kitchen again, for example—and for the contractor. The contractor doesn’t have just one client. He’ll want to bid on other jobs that will follow this one. Let me tell you from experience, there’s nothing more annoying than a contractor who can’t get to your job because he hasn’t finished the previous job yet.

Some professions, like mine, allow you to complete the job early. Those professions are like mine in more ways than one: our work is generally subjective. Architects deal with this. One wag, writing about New York City, mentioned that in New York, large projects have a pattern: The idealistic project, the sacrificial project, the realistic project, and the actual project. The idealistic project, he said, is the one that gets the ball rolling—the one that allows property to change hands, and the city government to change the ordinances. The sacrificial project is the one everyone likes, but is impractical. It might actually get underway, but gets stalled by lawsuits from former landowners or neighbors who hate the idea of anything going into that neighborhood. The realistic project is, then, the compromise between the first two—the one that the lawsuits settle on, the one that fits the land use designs. The realistic project is often so ugly that someone decides to hire one more architect to get one more design. And that design is always the actual project, because by then, everyone is tired of the process and ready to move onto something else.

If the job is small enough, the same architect works on all four projects (and expects the pattern). If it’s large enough, the job might provide work for two generations of architects over the lifetime of the project. All of those architects, however, meet deadlines, set by the client or the city or both. The project itself will then have deadlines and so will the court cases.

Deadlines are, no matter what your profession, a fact of life.

So, then, why do so many people miss those deadlines?

I’m not the person to ask. If you’ll look at the post on discipline, you’ll see that I’ve been meeting deadlines since I was in broadcasting. (Hell, I met them before that—I was one of the annoying kids who got my homework done early.)

Everyone eventually will miss a deadline. Life intrudes. Illness strikes, emergencies happen. A friend who had a strict deadline got seriously injured at a work-related event and that injury turned into a life-threatening series of complications. So instead of meeting her deadline early, my friend was two months late. Had she waited until the last minute to start, however, she would have been six to eight months late. The fact she could work at all with all of the health problems was a miracle in and of itself.

What do you do if you’re going to be late? You inform the client the instant that you know. No excuses. You explain the reason for the tardiness and apologize. Sincerely. Then you set a new deadline.

If you’re in a profession where no new deadline is possible (the judge refuses to change the court date, for example), you come up with another solution. You might have to give up the job and give it to someone else who is as (or more) qualified than you are.

But the bottom line is simple: you keep your client informed of your progress. You never ever disappear or go dark. You never miss the deadline and then apologize. You tell your client what the problem is, and what your solution will be. If you turn out to be wrong—if you’re able to meet the original deadline—do so. If you overestimated how quickly the problem would end, tell the client the moment you know and change the deadline again. Offer a refund. Offer to find someone to replace you. Generally, the client will refuse because the client wants you for the job. But sometimes the client has needs you don’t even know about, and the client can’t wait for you. Nor should he have to.

Accept that missed deadlines happen and plan for them. If you have the kind of business that takes half the payment on the beginning of the project and half on completion, realize that you might have to repay that first payment if you miss the deadline. (Or repay a percentage of it.) Try not to spend that payment before the job is done.

(This is why so many professions separate costs out by time. You pay by the hour, with a retainer up front. Or you pay expenses and the cost of the job. Expenses happen no matter what. The cost of the job might have to be repaid if the deadline doesn’t get met.)

I’ve mentioned deadlines in previous sections. I’ve stressed how important they are, and I’m sure you’ve nodded, agreeing with me, knowing that I’m right, the way your teacher is right when she wants the assignment on time.

But deadlines are more complicated than that. Because in the real world, deadlines add up to only one thing: Your reputation. If you meet your deadlines, you have a good reputation. If you’re early, you have a sterling reputation. If you’re chronically late no matter how good your actual work is, you’ll have a bad reputation.

A freelancer with a bad reputation eventually becomes someone else’s employee. In other words, a bad reputation will cost you your business. And the quickest way to ruin your own reputation is to consistently miss your deadlines.

I’m a few sentences away from meeting my deadline tonight. That will make this twenty-two weeks in a row that I have made my deadlines on this project. Self-imposed, yes. But worthwhile all the same. In some ways, I see these posts as an appointment with those of you who visit every week. Some of you visit as soon as I post and some of you straggle in throughout the week. But you know I’ll have something new on the site when you click to it.

That matters to me. It matters enough that I’m sitting in my office to the music of the dishwasher and washing machine (and now, the dryer) as I play Bach loud enough to wake the dead—or at least to keep me awake as I type this.

Keep your deadlines. Be on time for your appointments. Open your stores on time and don’t close them early. Respect your clients. Then they’ll respect you in return.

“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide:Deadlines,”copyright 2009 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

7 thoughts on “Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Deadlines

  1. You might say deadlines are the precise topic that I’ve geared up for a really long traveling session, so much that I’m not quite sure where I’m wandering.

    There’s only two people I have as “onward, onward!” support for my small business and writing career. One of them is my little sister. And one of my best friends lives in New York City. Everyone else doesn’t understand it, or has the suburban “we come home and rest” mindset. Which has never been my feelings.

    I’m pretty sure that I did most of my homework before everyone else. Maybe not in high school, though. The part-time jobs in university were something different, but see the “come home and rest”.

    I feel like I’m saying more than I should but you certainly seem to be opening parts of your soul! Why not do the same? 🙂

  2. In my freelance business, I say, “Deadlines are God.” I don’t miss deadlines if at all possible. The last time I missed a deadline was because there was confusion as to what the deadline actually was. The publisher’s was two days before what I thought it was and when they said, “Hey, you’re late,” I said, “Uh, isn’t the deadline tomorrow? I’m wrapping it up today.” We both agreed we were confused and I had it for them within 24 hours, but now I double-check. Aside from that, I’m usually a few days early, at least.


    Well, same client, a good client, had an article due today, as a matter of fact. I was racing to get all the interviews done before I went out of town last week, but that didn’t turn out to be possible (because, it being August, a lot of people are ALSO on vacation). So this week I crammed in 2 or 3 additional interviews (out of 7 or 8 for this particularly big, complicated, important article), then was writing my ass off to get it done I had hoped by Tuesday night (nope), then Wednesday. Then Wednesday afternoon, I’m still churning away on the article (almost 5,000 words) when my wife steps into my office and says, “Why’s your floor all wet? Oh crap!”

    In my office is a little closet where the water comes in from the outside world and goes to the house and out to the sprinkler system. The parts had been leaking a month ago and we had it replaced, but the valve cracked (God knows why) and it had two fine little sprays of water inside the closet that was seeping outside the door. And we hurried up and moved half my crap around and called the plumber, and I kept writing while he was here, and after he was gone, and until 9:10 last night. And this morning I wrapped up the article, sent it off, called the client and was offered a temporary but very regular gig that might turn permanent in addition to the other stuff I do for them.

    And that’s why you meet or beat deadlines.

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