Sunday, October 26, 2008

How To Use Self-Imposed Deadlines Wisely

Some people hold that setting a deadline for yourself is a great way of forcing yourself to do the work. I would advocate caution here. My scepticism towards self-imposed deadlines is not because of the stress levels they generally cause, it’s because they are symptomatic of an attitude which accepts good enough as its standard.

There are a number of unspoken convictions which underlie the misconception that screenwriting benefits from time pressure. Here are some:

  • Working under time pressure forces you to make choices you would otherwise make anyway, only later. The truth is usually that with time, you’ll make entirely different, more considered creative choices.

  • The degree of improvement to a screenplay diminishes as more time is spent on it. This is also nonsense. Sometimes a great insight can only emerge after you’ve written a whole lot of material and encountered an important new question.

  • A screenwriter will endlessly change their work if not forced to stop. This too is a fallacy. Every writer has a sense of form, and will reach a point where things “make sense.” Like when you change one last aspect of a character and suddenly it all fits.

But the main, and in my opinion most objectionable rationalization for imposing a deadline on your own writing, is the notion that artificially predetermining when the work must be finished, will result in it actually being creatively cooked and ready by then.

I’ve seen it happen so often: A looming deadline encourages you to move the goal posts, lower the bar, relax your standards. The closer the deadline approaches, the more crap you’re willing to see through your fingers, despite your intuition quietly telling you not to.

It’s precisely those nagging little doubts in the back of your mind which make for excellent rather than merely OK writing.

I definitely see the use of deadlines in firing people up to get to work. However once a deadline becomes an excuse to deactivate your critical faculties, then it becomes counterproductive.

So how do you use a self-imposed deadline wisely?

Set yourself a reasonable deadline and at the same time, compile a list of criteria by which you will judge whether you’ve achieved what you set out to do. When the deadline arrives, consult your list of criteria and be honest. Take a “Zen moment” to divorce yourself form any ulterior considerations and listen to your intuition.

If your material is where you want it to be, congratulations! If it's not, figure out why and by all means set a new deadline (with a new list of criteria).

There’s no point delivering anything less than the best you can do.


Anonymous said...

Hi Dave, you're going to hate for this.

But I love deadlines.

I love deadlines set by contests, my wife, paying bills and my relatives and not being late for work.

It is inside these deadlines that I write my best.

I am the joy of stress. I love stress. It gets me off my "chair"(lol) and write and market that script.

Raving Dave Herman said...

Hey, deadlines work, there's no debate about that! But the quality of the result is not always what it could have been if you'd have had enough time to flesh your idea out more thoroughly.

As Russel at points out, getting to a first draft is an important step in the screenwriting process and can benefit from a deadline.

However, a first draft is usually a long way from a final draft in terms of quality. It's merely the point at which you start rewriting, polishing, etc.

If you rush those stages of the process (e.g., by setting a tight deadline), you risk delivering a screenplay that is less than your best.



P.S. Just to prove I'm not blindly prejudiced against deadlines, I've just set myself a deadline of December 1st to produce a first draft of a screenplay that's been buzzing around my head for years. I'll keep you posted ...

Anonymous said...

Is that script before Dec. 01, a thriller, drama etc.? What's the genre?

A friend of mine just finished his dream script -- it's an epic. It's about a Ghost Ship under the Bush administration. Don't laugh.

I read some of it, its more in the style of Night Shamalayan.

Raving Dave Herman said...

Let's just say I hope it turns out to be: Chicago meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

A musical romcom with a philosophical, psychedelic twist.

Wish me luck!