Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

How to Demolish Your Deadlines

More than 30 years ago, when I was completing my undergraduate degree, I found myself in an "open-book" final exam. Talk about the magic of threes... I had to write three essays on three different books in three hours. As allowed, I had lugged into the exam an impossibly tall stack of books.

But for some strange reason — the professor's poor communication or my own stupidity — I'd managed to pre-read only two of the books. Fortunately, I had the third one with me. But it was completely and utterly unread. I hadn't even cracked the spine yet.

I felt a moment of panic when my mistake hit me like a punch to the solar plexus. This was a fourth-year course and the exam was worth a great deal of my grade. What the hell was I going to do?

I took a deep breath and made a plan. I would spend the first hour skimming the book I hadn't read (it was more than 300 pages) and then I would write three essays in 40 minutes apiece. The most stressful part? Simply reading, while everyone around me was writing like a fiend. But I controlled my breathing and used lots of positive self-talk to get me through it. My final grade? 86%.

That was undoubtedly one of the worst deadlines of my life but it taught me some valuable lessons. Unfortunately, it was more than another 10 years until I translated them into writing lessons.

Here are five tips that should help you demolish your deadlines without defeat:

1) No matter how short your time, always make a plan. If I could devote five minutes of a 180-minute exam to planning, surely you can spend five minutes on a project that's not due until next week, or even tomorrow! Planning in itself will help calm you, no matter how difficult the circumstances you face.

2) Start with the end point (the finished piece of writing) in mind and work backwards to ensure you've allowed for every step of the writing process. Remember: if time is tight you may be tempted to skip a step or two. DON'T! Instead, just do them faster. Be particularly careful to protect your incubation (the time before editing when you leave your writing aside without looking at it.) I always try to allow for one day but if you don't have time for that, allow at least one hour.

3) Don't start writing until you have finished your research. You will NOT save time by writing early. In fact, this is one heck of a way to guarantee a bad case of writer's block that can last for months or even years. Finish your research, think about your writing and THEN write. The only exception is if you are waiting for an obligatory quote (likely from a very senior person.) If the quote is truly obligatory and won't add substance to the story then you may use _____ or XXXXX marks and fill it in later. But otherwise, always finish your research first!

4) Do a mindmap. This is the closest thing to a magic bullet for writing. I'm late producing today's column as a result of a whole passel of client crises but I still did a mindmap — in less than five minutes. In fact, it was the mindmap that caused me to remember my anecdote about the exam 30 years ago. (Want to learn more about mindmapping? I give an e-book on the subject to anyone who signs up for my free newsletter.)

5) Employ a kitchen timer (or computer-timer) to give yourself a mini-deadline and to encourage your productivity. I am using one right now (I have 1 minute and 23 seconds left to finish this column) and, instead of finding it a burden, I find it wonderfully corrective. I write using pomodoros — 25 minute bursts of hard work (no email, no web surfing, no phone calls) followed by a five-minute break.

Deadlines needn't demolish you. In fact, they can be bedazzlingly energizing and brain-blowingly productive.

Beep, beep, beep. There goes my timer. It's time for me to hand in my exam!

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8� Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday July 14th 2011, 4:47 AM
Comment by: Mark K. (New York, NY)
Very cool advice. I think I'll copy and paste it into a local file so I don't have to come back for it. Thanks for your wonderful work.
Thursday July 14th 2011, 11:15 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Yes, I agree. A very cool advice.
I always try to follow the directions/ advices spelled out in this column, I read Ms. Dephne's almost every column (because I'm a long time VT member) in this section. I barely improved my habits so far.
This time I vowed to write a response for every column for every day's writers. If I'm able to continue this time, then you will receive my responses now and then.
Please keep providing more anecdotes, that surely improves my shortcomings.
Thank you again.
Thursday July 14th 2011, 11:35 AM
Comment by: Glenda R.
The first time I've read deadline advice I plan to use. I hate deadlines! I am anxious to give this a try. I won't be missing any Gray-Grant columns in the future. Thank you!
Thursday July 14th 2011, 12:38 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for your very kind words! Pay particular attention to the pomodoros (item #5, above). I've found them life-changing!
Thursday July 14th 2011, 12:57 PM
Comment by: Art A. (Waukesha, WI)
Glad to hear someone using pomodoros. I've been wanting to try that for some time. Maybe this is just the inspiration I needed!
Thursday July 14th 2011, 2:06 PM
Comment by: Carol V. (Pleasant Hill, IA)
I like the idea of pomodoros, too! Now, I will begin to shop for neat timers for the classroom! I love your five-step plan and funny anecdote! How cool would it be to use this article with teens by having them read and talk about it. Then, they could list the five steps into their new planners in their OWN words, somewhere they can refer back often as they start projects throughout the school year.
Thursday July 14th 2011, 4:22 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Carol, I'm so glad you're thinking about teaching your students about pomodoros. How I wish I'd had a teacher who'd taught me this trick 30 years ago!! Art, go for it.
Tuesday July 19th 2011, 11:54 AM
Comment by: liebowriter (Towaco, NJ)
I think the ticking of the timer would drive me insane. I'm going to embrace this pomodoro technique, but go for something more on the quiet side.
Tuesday July 19th 2011, 1:47 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I have a friend who ADORES the ticking sound -- she calls it a "gentle wall of sound" -- but, like you, I prefer the silent pomo. I have a digital kitchen timer perched on my desk. To me, this is less work than having an online timer which I'd have to "click" to look at.

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