You Missed a Deadline – Now what?

By Terreece M. Clarke

Writers miss deadlines. Gasp! Shock! Horror! Plenty of writers will swear it has never happened, while others will attest, though usually secretively, that they have missed or come close to missing a deadline.

It’s the “No, No” of “No, No’s” and you’ve just missed one or are close. So what do you do now?

Breathe

There is usually a strong amount of panic when a writer discovers they’ve blown a deadline. Sweaty palms, jerky movements, loud swearing and personal, repetitive self-admonishments are par for the course, but it’s hard to make a rational move while kicking your own butt so calm down. Breathe in and out and get ready for the next step.

Assess the damage and notify

Are you almost finished with the piece or are far from starting it? Have you been contacted by the editor or client yet? If you wall yourself up in a room with your computer can you get things back on track in a couple of hours?

Figure out what you need to do to get the piece completed with exceptionally clean copy. If you’re going to be late with something, you better turn in something perfect. Once you know exactly how long you need to finish your work, contact your editor or client, apologize and give them specifics on when they can expect the work. Be honest, but screw the excuses, most editors have heard them all and do not care. If something very serious happens, i.e. a car accident, death in the family, etc., let them know what’s happening, but don’t kill your grandma off just to get out of looking bad.

Make amends

You do realize that when you turn in work late you are holding up other people – editors, client, printers, web people, etc., right? If you are going to be very late turning in work, you may want to offer a reduced rate, kind of like a pizza – on or before deadline or it’s discounted.

Find out what went wrong and fix it

Did procrastination strike? Last minute work + Murphy’s law = Screwed writer. Did you have issues with a source? Did you just plain forget or write down the wrong date? Get to the root of the problem and take whatever steps to ensure it won’t happen again.

So what’s the real damage?

The aftermath of a missed deadline can leave a writer wondering if they’ve got a future with that particular editor or client. It depends. If you are chronically late or cutting it close with relatives dropping like flies, inexplicable computer viruses and “forgotten” email attachments, you may just find yourself dropped like yesterday’s election bumper sticker. But if you’ve always been reliable and this is your first goof, you are likely to retain your relationship, but don’t bank on it. Editors and clients are always on a deadline crunch and if you cannot be trusted to deliver, you could quickly find yourself in the email trash folder. So the best advice is to never miss a deadline. Keep an updated editorial calendar and stick to it. Set electronic reminders for a time before the deadline and don’t wait until the last minute to start an assignment, you never know what could happen!

Editors, what are some of the craziest excuses you’ve received for a missed deadline?

Writers, have you ever missed a deadline? Did a lame excuse cover your butt? Tell us! You can use an alias. :)

Comments

  1. Terreece, I feel like you got into my head and pulled out my biggest concern. I’ve just spent the past week vigorously kicking myself because I blew a deadline. Worse, the advertorial copy that I submitted needed to be approved by a corporate ( another long bureaucratic process) and then the publisher, which adds to the delays.

    I saw this situation coming. Had a hard time getting the details i needed from the corporate to do the story, and an even worse time getting into people’s diaries for an interview. Some of them cancelled on me at the last minute. And I communicated regularly with the editor about my progress/ lack of one regularly.

    That said, I still feel like it’s my fault the situation blew in our faces like this; I wonder if i could have done things differently. Could I have been firmer with the people who messed me around? Was there something about the way I approached them that made them think it was okay to slack off on this project, that it was less important?

    It shook my confidence quite a lot, and I’ve beat myself up about it for days, but I also know that I have to stop. As you say, “it’s hard to make a rational move while kicking your own butt.”

  2. The first time I ever missed a deadline in three years of freelance writing was last week — yes, seriously. My area had an early snowstorm that knocked out electricity, internet, phone, cell phone, heat and just about every other comfort and convenience, for two days. I emailed my editor as soon as I could and told her what had happened and that I wouldn’t be able to file all the articles for the week that were expected. She was fine with it — very gracious, really — and probably because it had never happened before and she knew she could count on my work. Save missed deadlines for true emergencies and your clients will likely understand!

  3. Damaria – Yes, girl, you’ve got to stop kicking your own butt. It happened and you try to fix it and move on. I think the hardest thing is the embarrassment – the cring-worthy, fall through the floor embarrassment is rough. Believe me, I’ve been there :0)

    MM – Your right, great reputation helps alot in these situation.

  4. I had been passive aggressive about an ongoing, quarterly project that I did not love. I took the gig for money but knew full well that it would be a pain and I would not want to do it. Needless to say, I blew deadlines more than I would like to admit (and my reputation has been built on how great I am with managing, organizing and maintaining schedules/deadlines). It was almost like I was trying to be fired. Eventually the project was squashed because of funding but I believe that it hurt my reputation with the company (or at least with my contact who I very much respect).

    I would definitely say that even before you take a gig, make sure that you really want it. The root of my problem was that I saw $$$ and thought that would be enough motivation. It wasn’t.

  5. Oooh GREAT point Kristen. It’s hard to say no to the money isn’t it? It seems to go against every instinct in our bones to say no to something that is going to be dreadfully boring or tedious when the money’s right. I think the majority of us struggle with that and it can definitely affect the amount and quality of work you produce.

  6. sorry to differ with you, but as a former newspaper reporter, deadlines are the 11th commandment. You get up early, stay up late, find alternate sources, etc., but YOU MAKE DEADLINE. I’ve called in articles on the fly, worked in a hospital waiting room, finished articles at remote offices when my system crashes, etc. In 30 years, I can count on one hand the number of deadlines that have been missed (flood, total system crash, car failure when I was in the middle of nowhere were typical reasons).

    I didn’t get a job once with CNA Insurance because they asked “what happens when you miss deadlines.” I said: “I don’t.”

    Now some editors may have unrealistic expectations, or corporate clients may hold up their end on a copy approval or an interview. On the first, you either work out a acceptable deadline with the editor, or ask for an extension when you forsee a problem (as long as you hit the extension, you made deadline). On the second, that’s the client missing deadline, not you.

    I get some work that others may not because, as one of my former editors who wrote a testimonial for me says, I “have a diabolical devotion to deadlines.”

    So on your post, I’ll have to respectfully disagree with the premise.

  7. Phil – I appreciate your sentiment. I’m a newspaper reporter as well, but there are times when a writer will miss a deadline. It may not be a deadline for a daily, but what about blog writers, magazine writers etc?

    We can’t pretend it doesn’t happen, so instead of assuming that no one will ever miss one, it’s better to talk about what to do to prevent it from happening again and how to repair your reputation, etc.

  8. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve missed deadlines in the past. And most of them have been my fault. It’s something I’m trying to nip in the bud by assessing repetitive situations that I create that contribute towards it. (fear being at the root of it)

    • @2ThePoint I hear you! I am a freelance resume writer and I have developed a nasty habit of FREQUENTLY missing deadlines. I have 3 kids at home and get distracted easily, so even though my husband watches them while I pretend to work, I end up goofing off. I came looking for a blog post like this because I know I have a serious procrastination problem! I blew a deadline that I gave my contractor’s client and he is royally pissed at me.

      It’s like self-sabotage! I took the job because I know I need the money, but I really just need a break from writing since I just left a horrible 9-5 last month. I never took time to clear my head and pick up the pieces and now I’m dropping the ball. It is as another blogger wrote Last Minute + Murphy’s Law = Screwed Writer.

  9. Hi Terreece,

    Actually, I did miss a deadline…my very first writing gig! I was sooo excited after signing the contract, it never dawned on me that the work was expcted the 1st friday after said contract…I immediately dashed off an apology along with a 800 word article to my editor..

    Although a bit miffed, she decided to give me a break, although with a dire warning not to let it happen again:) needless to say, I’m checking &re-checking any/all contracts/guidelines before I commit…

    clara.

  10. I’ve missed very few deadlines in my career so far. My problem was my calender, and forgetting to write certain things down, especially when I got the news of an assignment when I was away from my office. (Never believe yourself when you think “Oh, I’ll just write this down when I get home.”)

    I’ve only ever blown one magazine deadline, and I wrote the editor immediately to ask her if she still wanted the copy. Then while I waited for her response, I pounded out a first draft. Turns out she couldn’t use it because of the delay, but she did invite me to query again when I apologized and owned up to my own mistake without trying to kill off the power or a beloved relative. :)

  11. Wow, thanks for this article. I know I’ve been late a couple of times, and that was earlier in my writing career, when I didn’t know how to manage myself correctly. It was so embarrassing, and I didn’t want to be perceived unreliable, because that’s so far from the truth.

    It’s hard to not beat yourself up over it.

    I second the recommendation of holding up in a room with your computer and getting it done. Sometimes that’s just how it has to work!

  12. I’ve only missed two deadlines. The first was because my computer turned pretty colors: pink, purple, blue and green. I used my roommate’s computer to email my editor, but because all my information was on mine, was unable to complete the project. :(.

    The second time was this week, when I wrote down the wrong dates for a meeting I was supposed to cover for my local newspaper. Because of the holiday, I thought it was Wednesday instead of Tuesday, but it was Monday. Fortunately, my editor laughed, and I was able to contact the secretary and have her fax me a copy of the meeting

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