Large writing projects like crafting a book proposal, publishing a first book or finishing a dissertation come with built-in giant goals (finish the thing!). But to meet them, we have to set smaller writing milestones to move step-by-step in the right direction. Here are some tips for setting realistic writing deadlines, and what to do when roadblocks get in the way.
Set the Big Deadline First
What is your main writing goal and when is the real deadline? If you want to defend your dissertation in May, what is the absolute last date you can get the full dissertation to committee members? Make sure you check with your committee when answering this question. For an article, when is the submission deadline for that journal’s special issue? If you’re polishing your book manuscript, when is the manuscript due to the press? These final dates give you firm deadlines to write toward. The trick is to understand that these deadlines are final; moving them is not an option.
So, how do you know if your deadline is realistic? Ask yourself some questions. What are your other priorities between now and that deadline? Do you need help from anyone else to meet it? This is a particularly important question when working with academic collaborators, publishers, journal editors, or dissertation committees who have their own priorities, so be sure to consider their needs as well. What’s your track record? Do you make a habit of setting overly-ambitious deadlines only to find yourself stymied when you can’t meet them? If that sounds like you, it might be time to reach out to mentors for help on setting more realistic deadlines.
Set Smaller Deadlines to Keep on Track
Once you’ve got a sense of your final deadline it’s time to set realistic smaller deadlines to move you toward the goal. Set daily or weekly writing goals that move you ahead. Writers often work with a goal to write 500–750 words a day or to complete a certain number of pages. If you do that, you will find the writing adding up fast. Some writers set a daily time goal, but given the number of hours many of us can spend staring at blank screens, a more concrete goal is helpful. A daily deadline keeps you on track and stems procrastination before it starts.
Sometimes your smaller goals aren’t about word counts but are the hard stuff of editing and revision or research—and that is writing too. Feasible writing deadlines take into account these other steps of the writing process, so put those as separate goals on the calendar to check in and make sure the writing you are doing is moving you to the final deadline.
Put It All on the Calendar
Realistic writing deadlines only work because they are real deadlines that can be met in the hours available in each day. Check that by putting your deadlines on the calendar, along with other priorities. These priorities include teaching and work, of course, but also all those other priorities that are important parts of our lives: sleep, rest, feeding ourselves and others, self-care, political work, and the rest of it. Realistic deadlines require us to be real about the rest of our lives.
Check in with Yourself
Sometimes what seemed like realistic writing deadlines at the time turns out not to be realistic at all. Check in with your progress and your deadlines every few weeks and reassess: are you making progress as planned? If not, why not? Take this as a chance to learn something about your own work habits and tendencies. Do you need to shift the deadlines? Do you need a better accountability system to keep you on track? Have priorities shifted, and do deadlines need to shift as well? Find what works to keep you writing, be real about your own limits, and those deadlines will be moments of celebration.
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