On Deadlines: From Both Sides of the Desk

Oh, deadlines. For editors and writers, there may be no issue so rife with angst, so filled with persecutory zeal and dread. Talk to many editors and they will tell you that a good writer is a punctual writer. I remember one of my first magazine jobs, where the editor had writers split into two categories: the good were on time (or—worthy of benediction—early) and the bad were late. She told me unabashedly that she couldn’t care less whether the articles were good or not. If they were on time and crappy, she would just rewrite them. That writer was a star in her book no matter how terrible his copy was. But if you were late? You’d better be Hemingway (really, actually, like Hemingway: spare and easily digested and requiring minimal or no editing) to be hired again.

As an editor, tardiness is frustrating. A late manuscript means revising schedules, which can lead to lots of other complications, including missing copyeditor and proofreader windows, losing a spot at the printer, or even missing ship dates. When I’m wearing my editor hat, I am as exasperated by lateness as any editor.

And yet. As a writer, I am not always perfectly punctual. Truth be told, this blog itself is a few days late! Why is this so? I think there are many reasons writers panic about deadlines, and it’s as much about perfectionism as it is about procrastination.

Writing is a risky endeavor. Even now as I write this, I’m thinking about who will read it, and how they will receive it. Will they like it? Will they think it’s funny? Will I come across as brave or overly confessional? Will I be judged for my admission of occasional lateness? Oh my God, if my editor sees this, will she ever hire me again? And on and on. As a writer, every time I set pen to paper, I am putting myself out there in a way I don’t as an editor. As an editor, I get to be the judge. As a writer, I feel judged. (Of course, another blog post could be about the tender skin of the editor, and how desperately she yearns to be liked—even loved!—by her writer.)

Perfectionism and procrastination go hand in hand for the writer. We procrastinate because we want it to be perfect—we need the perfect interview, the perfect first line, the perfect funny aside. And because perfection is unattainable, we procrastinate. We tell ourselves, I’ll put off that interview until tomorrow, I have to write that line again (and again and again), this ending isn’t quite right, maybe it will come to me in a dream, while I walk the dogs, or over a beer at the local bar.

So does this mean that I cut my writers slack as an editor? Not really. I absolutely empathize with the writers I work with in my editorial role. I feel every bit of their pain, and I know exactly what they’re experiencing as they slog through the marathon of writing an 80,000-word book, or even a 500-word blog. But I also know that as a writer, having an overly sympathetic editor has never done me any great service. Because so many writers share those dual traits of perfectionism and procrastination, sometimes they need to be told when to knock it off, and a stern note from an editor can help us let go. As an editor, my job is to help my writers, and sometimes the best help I can provide is telling them when it’s time to stop thinking and just press “Send.”