Are you good at getting things completed when you don’t have a deadline? Not many people are. If you are working as a freelancer, working on your own projects, or working on a manuscript, you might be familiar with how long these things can sometimes take. It’s always easier when someone else tells you when you need to get the work back to them. I find that if I don’t make a deadline, create lists to get things done, then I can take forever. Give me a deadline, and I’m all over it.
I have loads of friends who are writers; many have complete (and published) manuscripts, and many don’t. There are always things that get in the way of writing—you don’t need me to tell you that. I can procrastinate as well as the next person—but if you really want to finish it, you need to set your own deadlines to make that happen. There is always half an hour in a day that you can find, and sometimes it is just that half hour each day that makes all the difference.
I was thinking about this when chatting with a friend not so long ago who is trying to complete the first draft of his manuscript—with no deadline. He’s ‘onto it’, but the days, weeks, months pass by with few words actually being written. I didn’t bother talking to him about creating to-do lists as he is getting a lot done, just not the manuscript. Instead, I talked to him about making his own deadline for the first draft.
This sounds like a no-brainer, but each time I’ve spoken to people about this, it is as though a light has been switched on. If you don’t have a deadline to work to, it can stop you from actually finishing anything. When you have a deadline, and suddenly there is something to work to. But often with writing, you are your own boss with a timeline that stretches out indefinitely—especially with large projects that are not commissioned, or under contract.
I’m going to get a little mathematical here, but please stay with me (I now forgive my Year 8 Maths teacher Mr Chau for insisting on teaching me algebra even though I couldn’t understand why I would ever need it in ‘real life’, and apologise to him for being such a painful student.).
Step 1: Set a date
Give yourself a date for when you would like to have this first draft finished. Sometimes it can be helpful to have an arbitrary date like Christmas or the end of a month. Be realistic. It takes time to write, and everyone writes at a different speed. Taking advantage of events like NaNoWriMo can be great as the communal writing can encourage you to keep up to your commitment. Maybe you can book some time in that is dedicated to writing.
Step 2: Words per week
Work out how many words you need for the whole manuscript (use the general word count for manuscripts as a guide: 80-100 thousand for general fiction, 60-75k for young adult, etc.). Now work out how many weeks there are between now and that date (let’s call it ‘A’), and how many words there are (let’s call it ‘B’). The number of words you need to write in a week (let’s call this ‘C’) is B divided by A.
B (words left to write) ÷ A (weeks till deadline) = C (words per week)
An example of this is: Bill wants to finish his manuscript by the end of January, which is 15 weeks away (A). He has written 42,000 words, and is writing a general fiction, so still needs to write 58,000 words (B) if he wants to get to 100,000 words:
58,000 words ÷ 15 weeks = 3867 words per week
Step 3: Words per session
Now break this down to how many days a week you can write (D) to see how many words you need to write on each of your writing days.
C (words per week) ÷ D (days you write in a week) = E (words you need to write each day)
Back to that example above, Bill can commit to six writing sessions a week, so:
3867 ÷ 6 writing days in a week = 645 words per writing session.
When I went through this with my friend, he said that he can easily write 500 words in a half hour session. I suggested that he think about how often he could write in a week, as if he did this seven days a week (it is only half an hour a day), then he could smash out a massive 3500 words a week, and in a fortnight he’d have 7000 words, and then in four weeks, he’d have 14,000 words (etc.). Light bulb moment!
How do you push yourself to finish your first draft of your manuscript? Do you make your own deadlines? How to you then make it happen?