For my final semester of college, I decided to complete an honors project in fiction. It was the most intensive writing project I’ve ever done: a collection of five short stories, for a total of 90 pages. The deadline: April 28th. I didn’t feel the pressure of this deadline until about a week before, when I was still working on a full rewrite of one of my stories, and had another two stories that still needed a final pass. The day my collection was due, I spent over five hours revising, formatting, and proofreading my work, but finally, by 8pm, I sent it to my advisor. I was done, and to me, being able to meet that hard deadline was impressive and satisfying; it felt like closure. And, most importantly, I was elated with my finished product.
But now, with my sparkling new bachelor’s degrees and no future assignments on the horizon, I am petrified. How am I supposed to write without a deadline, and without the threat of a professor docking points for lateness, or, even worse, letting them down? I am the only one that can truly hold myself accountable now. How will I ever complete another story again?
We’ve all encountered deadlines in our school and work lives. Some people despise them, but many people, like me, feel like we can’t be productive without them. A deadline adds shape to a task and gives us a sense of what we can accomplish in the designated time frame. It’s comforting, and often fueling. Another professor of mine says that this creates “a sense of urgency,” and that some of our best work comes from working under the pressure of a deadline.
I’m here to tell you (and tell myself!) that that is not always the case. We don’t need a deadline to be creative and productive.
Remember that hard deadline I had on my senior honors project? It was actually a relatively arbitrary date, about a week before the honors reading when the project was actually due, and it was a date that my advisor and I decided on together. It was fully attainable, as my advisor assured me multiple times. I knew that I could ask him for help or for a small extension at any point in time. If I had wanted to go to bed and send the finished project to him the next morning, I could have.
We tend to think that deadlines are less effective without a professor or boss imposing them on us, but there’s actually some gray area when it comes to deadlines. We have a say in them too. While I had the April 28 date looming over me, the entire project consisted of a handful of smaller, usually weekly deadlines that coincided with my advisor meetings. For these smaller deadlines, I didn’t have to hit a specific word count or page number—I just wrote until I ran out of time. And usually, the desire to turn in something good was enough to keep me going.
These little details are things we forget about as writers, longing for the days when we had school writing assignments and the weight of our professors’ judgment hanging over our heads, “forcing” us to work. We can’t truly recreate that for ourselves. We can tell ourselves that we’re going to finish that chapter by the end of the day or else we can’t watch TV with dinner, but it’s very hard to enforce this on ourselves like a professor or boss can. And when we fail to meet our deadline, we feel frustrated and discouraged. Not good for writing morale.
What we can do instead, and what I learned to do from my honors project, is be gentle with ourselves. Set small benchmarks with flexible deadlines so you can track your progress on a project, rather than fume over the fact that it’s not finished yet. Pick someone to send your progress to—someone whose opinion you care about and that will hold you accountable, but that will also encourage and support you. Focus on nourishing your creative energy rather than pushing yourself past your limit by setting goals and deadlines that are infeasible.
Be forgiving with yourself. You’ll accomplish what you want to all in good time.
About the author: Lindsey has a BA in English and Creative Writing from Brandeis University. She loves writing short stories and has more recently taken an interest in writing poetry. For three years she was an Editor-in-Chief for her school literary magazine, Laurel Moon. You can usually find her reading, crocheting, or bothering her cat, Sister. She hopes to be a writer and an editor in the future to continue to help others improve their work.