Holding Yourself Accountable: Using Writing Deadlines in Your Customized MFA
The Dreaded Deadline
One forges one’s style on the terrible anvil of daily deadlines.
~ Émile Zola
I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
~ Douglas Adams
From the quotes above, you might guess that I’m not the biggest fan of deadlines (it’s true), but I recognize their usefulness, and I dutifully pencil them in on the calendar – and you probably should, too. Deadlines give our minds something to work toward, whether it’s a daily word count goal, a date on which a certain amount of work must be completed, or the day a specific scene or chapter must be reached. Without deadlines, most minds are likely to dawdle, to find an excuse to do something – anything – other than write.Boy, the kitchen sure could use a good scrubbing. I’ve been meaning to iron that pile of laundry for weeks. Shouldn’t I be researching the setting for chapter six? I’ve been putting off making that dentist appointment for a while, now. (Okay, maybe you should schedule the dental appointment, but as soon as you’re done, sit down and write.)
Of course, when you’re pursuing your customized MFA, there’s no one but you to hold you to your deadlines. You have no choice but to self-impose your own deadlines and stick to them. Perhaps you might gravitate toward a daily word count goal (a daily deadline of sorts), or maybe you work best by setting a specific end date for a chapter or first draft. Use any method that works to get your creativity flowing.
Chapter or Other End-Point Deadlines
Incremental deadlines usually work best. Start small and work your way up. Be careful about implementing a deadline for completing an entire book or script unless you’re sure you can reasonably meet it. Missed deadlines can spur feelings of inadequacy or even feelings of complacency about your writing. You become used to missing deadlines, and part of your brain begins to dismiss them out of hand. Because you don’t feel like you’re producing as much as you should, you begin to produce less and less until you’re barely producing anything. If you’re not going to meet your deadline, why try at all? the brain thinks. So, use end-point deadlines carefully. If they work for you, that’s fabulous! You have one more tool to get your creative self where you want to be.
Daily Word Counts
Nothing surely is so potent as a law that may not be disobeyed. It has the force of the waterdrop that hollows the stone. A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules. It is the tortoise which always catches the hare.
~ Anthony Trollope
Another deadline, of sorts, is the daily word count. You can set your goal at 200 words or 2000, but make sure it’s a reachable, obtainable goal. Sure, you may have written 4000 good words one day two years ago, but pushing yourself to write 4000 words, good or otherwise, each and every day will likely ensure failure like little else.
Authors of every stripe rely on daily word count goals. Anthony Trollope wrote 3000 words before going to work at the post office every morning. W. Somerset Maugham wrote 1000 words a day. Stephen King sets his goal at 2000. Michael Crichton claimed a staggering 10,000 words a day, but Hemingway created his masterpieces just 500 words at a time. Whatever your goal, setting it is simply the first step. Then, you have to meet it. Relentlessly. As Mr. Trollope put it, “Nothing surely is so potent as a law that may not be disobeyed.”
Eventually, you’ll have your first draft, and then it will be time to create rewriting deadlines. You know best how you rewrite/edit/correct your work, so start with that. Can you set a goal of a chapter each day? A certain number of pages?
Pursuing an MFA, traditional or customized, means holding yourself accountable. You have to work, and you have to produce. A writer who doesn’t write isn’t really a writer at all. A dreamer, perhaps. A planner. An idealist. But not a writer.
So, how do you hold yourself accountable?
Harness the power of shame (no, really) and let other people, writers or not, know about your deadlines. Post them on Facebook or Twitter, or tell your friends and family members. You can offer to pay someone close to you $50 if you miss your deadline. You could even make it known that, if you miss your deadline, you plan to donate money to an organization with which you vehemently disagree. (Now, that’s incentive!)
Another way to ensure you meet your deadlines is to join a writing group that requires you to bring in new work each week. If you have a writing partner or you’re pursuing a collaborative customized MFA, you can hold each other accountable for steadily bringing in new work.
If you’re using a daily word count, pin a calendar to the wall, preferably in a prominent spot where others in your home will see it, and mark each day you’re able to meet your goal. Once you have a few days in a row, try your damnedest to keep the streak going. If it helps you, plan a reward at the end of each week, a larger reward when you’ve met your goal every day for a month.
Will Deadlines Work for You?
I write in spurts. I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down. But once something is really under way, I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little. It’s a very undisciplined way of working and makes me not very prolific. But I’m too interested in many other things.
~ Susan Sontag
Deadlines don’t work for everyone. There are those who, like Susan Sontag, tend to do their best writing in manic spurts. But, for the vast, vast, majority of us, writing must be a daily activity if we want to continue improving our abilities and end up with anything resembling a finished draft. If you’re not sure whether deadlines help you get words onto the page, start out with small ones – write a paragraph about spoons or a poem about a campfire while waiting for the tea kettle to whistle, or write 150 words while your soup simmers on the stove. Or, tell yourself you must reach a certain scene in your screenplay by the time the mailman delivers your daily bills and credit card applications. Keep your first deadlines light and fun. Then, if writing in a set amount of time feels thrilling to you or seems to be just the kick in the pants you need, work your way up to larger deadlines, such as daily or weekly word counts, or deadlines for completing a chapter or full article.
A customized MFA allows you to work in ways that best serve you. Choose a deadline that is achievable, a deadline that will help you produce as much quality work as you can, and stick to it.