Service of Deadlines

April 28th, 2011

Categories: Deadlines, Details, Failure, Politics, Service, Timing


Joseph S. Nye Jr. was on Book TV on C-Span 2 the other weekend discussing “The Future of Power,” at a February 15 presentation taped at the Center for a New American Security. When I tuned in he was discussing the difference in cultures between academic and government work.

His example was a hypothetical research paper due at the White House at 3 pm. As the deadline approached, the writer, from academia, thought the project could be better, that currently it was a B + and with a bit more work could be an A. So he polished and tweaked it until it was perfect. It arrived at the White House at 5 pm.f-grade1

Government Grade: F. Why? It got there too late to be used.

We’ve discussed writing blog posts, press releases, proposals, late breaking news or anything deadline-related. There comes a moment you must give up the work because in most cases, nobody can pay for Pulitzer Prize-winning copy.

more-time1It’s not only in academia that you can plead for an extension, though in Nye’s example, the person didn’t ask for one. I’ve never worked in government. In business, you can usually ask for one, though it isn’t a smart idea especially if you’re responding to an emergency or a scandal or announcing a product launch you’ve known about for eons, press kit material for trade show introductions or the guts of a press kit to distribute at a press event.

I don’t believe in missing other people’s deadlines nor do I ask for extensions.  Why? The Golden Rule. It’s awful when you are left in the lurch by someone else who misses their deadline whether a vendor, free lancer, partner or staff. Contractors and repair people have a reputation of not showing up when expected and giving no warning. You may have the hard deadline of a January wedding reception at your house but be prepared to cut the cake in an unpainted dining room on an unfinished floor.

In Nye’s illustration had the writer contacted the White House to ask for more time, he/she might have heard: “Don’t worry that it’s not perfect. We need the information in it to help us make a decision.” It seems to me that the imaginary person was thinking more about him/herself than the recipient of the research.

Are deadlines a part of your life? What do you do if you see you can’t meet one?


12 Responses to “Service of Deadlines”

  1. Mervyn Kaufman Said:

    As an editor, I learned that deadlines were important—mainly because so many of the writers I engaged failed to meet them.

    When I became a freelance, my major concern was not how my talents would be applied but how I’d be able to meet my deadlines. I wanted to become known as a reliable writer; thus meeting deadlines became a compulsion—one I cling to today.

    What would life be like without deadlines, I wonder.

    Well, I guess I’d procrastinate—like so many writers I know. It’s natural, I guess. We want the work, but when we get it we back away from it—and sometimes build up so much anxiety about it that the chore becomes an incredible challenge. In sum, knowing that I have an assignment that must be done—and a deadline that must be met—I’ve learned to set distractions aside and plunge in. And once I start, I’m usually okay. It’s getting started, sometimes, that can be challenging. Deadlines provide the bonus impetus to getting the work done.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I am lucky in that I know many excellent writers and you are among them and at the top of the list.

    I would think that the hole in your stomach created by anxiety would be bigger if you didn’t have deadlines that come with assignments. Because you are so good, you always have multiple projects in play from magazine articles to books and now plays. And as an editor you directed huge, complicated projects and never once missed a deadline.

    My guess is that one reason you are given so much work is that you let the people who use your material sleep at night. They know what they get is good and on time.

    My question: You are a perfectionist. How do you let yourself give up a project once time is up?

  3. Mervyn Kaufman Said:

    Actually, by the time I’m ready to submit my work, I’m eager to let go of it. Unless there are queries, I don’t look at it again until it is published—and then when I read it, it’s like reading it for the first time. For some reason, I quickly forget the material once it’s out of my grasp.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I am happy to know this because the same thing happens to me.

    I had a spacey client who would call me, begin talking fast with no greeting that would normally give me time to reach for a file, and simply launch into questions about copy I’d submitted for approval sometimes weeks before. I always wondered if she thought I did one thing at a time and kept her copy at my fingertips night and day and that I’d memorized it. Truth was, like you, once I’d done my research and interviews and written the copy, it was out of mind—similar to what happens to information tucked in a brain when cramming for exams: It soon evaporates.

  5. Lucrezia Said:

    Deadlines are actually threats: If given projects, work or personal, are not met by a certain time, bad things happen, and if ignored, they usually do. I don’t like them, but impose them on myself all the time, or I could be sitting at this machine all day ignoring the consequences of not paying bills and etc. Right now another deadline has just imposed itself. A thunderstorm looms, and I could be electrocuted in a matter of seconds……See what could happen if that first rumble is ignored?

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    You want to get off the computer in thunder and lightening. I once was told not to use a telephone during a thunderstorm and always wondered if it was an old wife’s tale. Better a thunderstorm where you live than all the horrendous tornadoes happening these days.

    I sometimes think that if we didn’t have deadlines nothing would get done in offices around the world, especially at places in which people sit in meetings all day.

    I meet everyone else’s deadlines but must admit that most of mine are put off. Guess that’s why there are all the fun late/missed birthday cards for me to buy.

  7. David Reich Said:

    Sometimes we tend to over_edit to the point it becomes counter productive.

  8. Hester Craddock Said:

    I am such a slow writer, that I set my own deadlines even if no one sets them for me. Otherwise, I never get the job done. Even so, I usually do not finish on time. Part of this is that I do much better work when under tremendous pressure. Deadlines do help me.

    One aspect of this, which is often overlooked, is the roll of the boss, the deadline setter. Whether in business, the government or academia, if the boss knows his/her employee, he/she has a pretty good idea of what to expect. He/she must clearly and truthfully define the job and expect no more back than what he/she defined. Then he/she must make sure that the employee clearly understands the task. Missing deadlines must be punished. Otherwise, tardiness becomes a habit.

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I find that each time I read something I find ways to improve it. I sometimes catch the most appalling, embarrassing errors on re-read. That’s why it’s great to have someone unfamiliar with the copy review it as huge mistakes will often jump out at them.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    People who know how to triage and prioritize their work tend to do OK with deadlines. When I fear I can’t handle another deadline, I think of what it must be like to work as a short order cook, I hunker down and knock things off the list.

    You know the old saying about “ask a busy person if you want something done.” Folks with not much to do tend to stretch out their tasks and get little done.

  11. CKC Said:

    You posed a question that I’m still debating, what to do if you can’t make a deadline….. I think that depends on the situation and the people involved. I don’t think you can make a hard and fast policy.

  12. Jeanne Byington Said:


    One of things that helps tremendously is to give others advance warning if you can’t make a deadline so that they can make alternate plans. I’ve rushed home in anticipation of seeing work done–when nothing was done and nobody said a peep. That makes me angry. Had I known in advance that, say, the toilet won’t be installed on Wednesday then I might feel inconvenienced but not angry.

    Similarly, I’ve had freelance writers who’ve pleaded for work then sound surprised at my tone and come up with pathetic excuses when the deadline I’ve given them passes and I must contact them! These are the folks who then submit subpar work and whom you never use again. Had they been proactive, informing you that they’d be late, you wouldn’t feel furious because you would have time to make other arrangements.

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