If there is one profession that lives and dies by deadlines, it is writing. Journalists, in particular, know that deadlines are sacrosanct; you must make them, even if it means staying up all night to do it. Many of us speak from experience when we recall how many times we have done that over the years. What is really frustrating is when you kill yourself to get a story to an editor who doesn’t get to it for a week or so, or a project to a client who absolutely had to have it on that day but isn’t in the office that day or even that week. Those are the times you may ponder the unfairness of life; but such ponderings do not cause you to miss the next deadline, even if it’s for the same person.
Deadlines are serious business, especially for a freelancer. They attest to your dependability and professionalism. Often, they have financial implications, as well. They are rarely isolated events, i.e., each deadline may be a step in a series, leading up to the most important one. That is why magazines and annual reports are planned from the mail date, backwards, to the very first activity.
The first key to making deadlines is planning. Always ask when the project is due, and get a specific date. Knowing your destination enables you to map out the trip. Let’s assume the project is a newsletter, and you are responsible for delivering copy only. Here are the steps you would incorporate in your plan, working backwards from the due date.
- Meet with the client to determine direction, content, sources of information, and timetable.
- Follow up with a recap of meeting, plan for proceeding, estimated fee structure, and schedule of payments.
- Begin research and interviews; interview, on tape; transcribe interviews.
- Write the articles, and turn in drafts to editor.
- Correct or rewrite drafts as required.
- Make final corrections; and secure approval by editor or client and sources.
- Turn in final copy, and send final invoice.
This plan makes perfect sense, but, unfortunately, if something can go wrong, it probably will. Here are seven ways your plan can go awry:
- While your intention is to determine direction, content, sources of information, and timetable during that first meeting, the client may be unprepared to supply what you need. She may not have it, or she may be waiting for direction or approval from the next person up the line. So, you leave the meeting with only a fraction of what you need, already running behind.
- Following up with a recap, a plan, an estimated fee, and a schedule of payments would be great if there were only one meeting, but chances are there will be two or three before you get a handle on these particular elements.
- You would begin your research, interviews, and transcriptions if you could. The assumption here is that, not only does the client have a list of people for you to see, she also has contact information and perhaps even appointments. In reality, she probably doesn’t have a complete list; she doesn’t have all of their phone numbers or e-mail addresses; and she has not set up any appointments. Often, it is up to you to figure out who’s who and where to find them before you can interview anyone.
- Eventually, you will write the articles and turn in the drafts but not at all the way you planned. The process is likely to be untidy: stories will be thrown out; contact names will change; people will be unavailable; and your deadlines will be in shambles.
- Correcting or rewriting drafts will definitely be required, probably several times. Each draft will go up the ladder for comments and corrections. Then, when it gets to the top rung, that person (the boss) may say this is not what he wants. So, you start over and go back up the ladder again. This process may be repeated for every story.
- Sooner or later, you will make final corrections and secure approvals, but, by that time, your carefully established deadline will have come and gone. You’ll be slightly hysterical, but no one else will seem to care very much. Or, if they do, they may blame you for the delay.
- Needless to say, after all the additions, corrections, and rewrites, the final invoice bears little resemblance to your original estimate. It doesn’t matter, though, since the client was prepared to pay the agreed-upon amount and not one penny more. “But,” you say, “the project was bigger than originally described, and it took much longer than we estimated.” Don’t be surprised if you are held to the original agreement.
Sound unfair? Though this example is extreme to make the point, unfortunately, it is not a complete fabrication. Murphy’s Law reigns supreme in the world of freelancing. So, what is a conscientious freelancer to do to prevent such frustration and financial loss?
My advice: Prepare for the worst-case scenario you can imagine. Then, build everything that can go wrong into your timeline, estimated hours, and projected fee. Finally, put a clause in your agreement about renegotiating the fee if the parameters of the job change or the client fails to live up to her commitments. Then, don’t waver!