Editor’s Notes: A Deadline is a Deadline for a Reason


I’ve dealt with a lot of nonsense from writers over the years. Not being able to meet deadlines is probably the most common frustration. For some reason, writers think it’s okay to combine a lazy excuse, an ETA and an apology for not doing their work on time – and many managing editors simply let it happen.

Everyone’s editorial preferences are different – just because I don’t think it’s acceptable doesn’t mean I’m right and they’re wrong. I come from a teaching background – meaning, I’m used to teaching college students what it’s actually like to write in the real world. I consider consistent tardiness a flaw that needs correcting. That’s just my viewpoint.

However, I do think it’s important that all writers understand why editors give them deadlines. Because, more and more, it seems to me their response is, “Well, as long as I get the work in within 24 hours of when they told me to, it’s fine.”

It’s really not. And I’m going to explain why, from a few different perspectives.

As a freelance editor, I am pretty much hired on contract to copyedit and format articles for a website. This is only one of many different clients I juggle throughout the work week. I have a very limited amount of hours to work with each client (depending, honestly, on how much they can afford to pay me weekly). So let’s say I have about three hours each week to assign, edit and publish one writer’s articles.

It’s much easier for me to break up work in such a way that I only work with one client several days out of the week, so I can concentrate better on what I’m doing. Typically, I leave one day for editing and another for publishing and assigning new articles. I have to leave writers enough time to research and write, so the same day they turn in their work, I edit.

Except when they don’t turn their work in on time.

Then my whole schedule is off by a day. Which sounds a little selfish, I guess, until you realize that I have other clients who don’t give me assignments until I log in that morning. So I don’t know 50% of the work I have to do tomorrow until it’s already tomorrow.

I can’t afford to wait for your work. I am on a tight schedule. If there is a problem, I need time to fix it. If you didn’t do a good job, honestly, I’m going to have to rewrite a portion of what you’ve already written. And since you clearly already rushed to turn in your work (late), the chances of there being significant flaws in your product are much higher.

Apologizing for the inconvenience also doesn’t help, because it’s still an inconvenience. Giving me the same old excuse is just annoying, because as much as I would LOVE to care, I have work to do, too, and I’m depending on you to do your job. It’s nice when a writer gives warning ahead of time that there’s a problem, but it usually doesn’t happen. I shouldn’t have to chase after you, wondering why my inbox is empty.

There are also publications that work on a very strict and tight editorial workflow. At the magazine I worked for in college, interns turned their work in on Friday. Editors had 48 hours to do full content and copy edits, and writers had 24 hours after that to fix them. We literally could not afford to accept late work, so we couldn’t. Do you think that went over well with a bunch of college students? Yeah, no. People expected to be allowed to turn work in whenever they wanted. I wonder where that assumption came from. (I really do?)

Online publishing is a delicate process. Not publishing something when it was intended to be published messes up everything, from traffic to SEO to who knows what else. It’s not because we’re trying to put more pressure on you. Our long-term success relies in large part on whether or not we are consistently publishing what we plan on publishing. If you deliver late, or not at all, you knock over the whole line of dominos. They’re never going to be put back exactly where they were before.

I don’t want to blame a writer incapable of meeting deadlines for messing up our workflow, but honestly, it’s a problem. I get really flustered when people just can’t seem to understand this.

When your editor gives you a deadline, it’s the latest possible day and time they can accept your work. Asking for your article by EOD Friday means someone is likely, for our purposes, already planning on staying in the office late to edit that article when they walk into work that morning. A deadline is really not meant to be tested. Exactly at 4:59pm, fine. Past that point, it’s the danger zone, panic alarms are going off, if they haven’t heard anything from you, it’s not good news – for anyone.

If your editor doesn’t give you a deadline, for whatever reason, give yourself one. Whenever I work with someone who says, “Can you work on this?” without giving me a due date, I struggle. The procrastinator in me just can’t get it done fast enough. So I’ve trained myself to set my own deadlines and stick with them. An editor myself, I understand that even when there’s no specific time frame, it’s better to get things done sooner rather than later – ASAP.

Always remember, as a writer working for an editor, that this process is not about you. Once your article is published and your name is on it, you’re welcome to celebrate and promote it all you want. Take pride in it, we’re happy for you. But until then, this is about workflow, about doing quality work in a timely manner, following directions, putting in all the effort you have. This is a priority. There are circumstances when emergencies do happen, and an editor will understand that. But I can pretty much guarantee your internet does not go out every single Friday afternoon when I’m expecting a submission from you.

Just do your work, well and on time. I don’t keep my chronic procrastination a habit – I tend to put things off as long as I possibly can. But when I am working, I get my work done. I don’t give excuses. I don’t say “I’ll have it to you by six” and then don’t turn anything in. Stop doing that!

Thank you. :)

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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