With lots of activity around the publication of my new book “Murder Your Darlings: And Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser,” I have been fielding lots of questions about productivity. It often comes in this form: “How did you ever write six books in a dozen years?”
When I hear the question, there is one small voice in my head that calls me a slacker compared to, say, Stephen King, who, at 2,000 words per day, can produce a draft of a novel in three or four months.
I have a comic answer to the question that gets laughs, especially at academic conferences. “I’m productive because I write during faculty meetings,” I say. “I write by hand and everyone thinks I am taking notes.”
My writing coach Donald Murray offered this key to productivity: “Roy, remember that a page a day equals a book a year.”
As I reflect upon this last decade of writing, one strategy stands above the rest. It derives from the power of the self-imposed deadline.
I learned this in an old-school newsroom. I might be working on a feature story with a deadline of, say, 6 p.m. Now I knew that some reporters would miss their deadlines, or at least press their deadlines, leaving no room for revision or the kind of collaboration and teamwork that hit the highest mark. I did not want to be that writer.
I watched my editor at deadline. She looked like an air-traffic controller, just hoping to land the planes without incident. During such a crunch, she had little to offer me in the form of feedback or coaching.
What if I handed my story in at 4 p.m., I wondered, two hours before the official deadline? What this meant for some editors, I learned, is that the story would just sit there until 6 p.m. untouched. Not helpful for editor or writer. More often than not, though, the strategy worked.
The self-imposed deadline is not a real deadline. It’s fake. If you miss it, you have two hours in the bullpen. That said, it came to feel real to me. It turned into a habit, so that the adrenaline of approaching deadline was as stimulating at 3:45 p.m. as it would be at 5:45 p.m.
If the self-imposed deadline works on daily stories, it works even better for enterprise work, including the writing of books.
I explained this about a decade ago for my 2011 book “Help! For Writers,” excerpted below.
Strategy: Establish a set of earlier artificial deadlines.
I am happy to report that I am making good use of this strategy as I move toward the end of this sentence. I write this on June 9, 2010. I’ve written a draft that covers about 75% of a full manuscript. The work has been going quickly, much more quickly than my last book, “The Glamour of Grammar.” For that book I had to renegotiate a deadline with my publisher.
My contractual obligation for this book requires me to meet a Jan. 31 deadline. When I agreed to that date, I knew that it would serve as a kind of safety net. In fact, I wanted to turn in a manuscript by the end of 2010 so that the book could be published in September 2011 instead of 2012.
To make that Jan. 31 deadline, I established another one for myself: Labor Day, Sept. 6, 2010. To make sure I hit that mark, I’ve created another one, July 4. At my current rate of productivity, I may not be able to meet that deadline, especially with some travel approaching, but who knows? Just remember this: Any deadline you establish for yourself will be more helpful than one imposed upon you by an editor, publisher, or teacher. (I finished a completed draft on July 2, about six months ahead of schedule.) “Unheard of,” said my editor, Tracy Behar.
In closing, let an artificial deadline become your practical lifeline for productivity – and an antidote to that corrosive form of authorial anxiety.
Roy Peter Clark is senior faculty emeritus at Poynter. He can be reached at email@example.com.