The two reasons I try to work far ahead of deadlines

I recently completed a draft of a research paper a day and a half of a deadline. I had worked on launching this paper for months and it felt good to complete it. After I met the deadline, I thought again about the process: why do I regularly work ahead of deadlines? Here are two reasons:

  1. I have more time to think. If I can start writing earlier, the writing process helps me think. Just having to write means I think about what I am saying and then having words down also pushes me to think about how the argument will continue or resolve. The time it takes to think through and develop academic arguments is underrated as I find it difficult to come up with a nicely framed argument in one sitting or at a particular moment. Even when I think I have the writing complete or have completed a section, working ahead of a deadline means I then have time to let it sit and I can consider it more clearly.
  2. You never know what might come up day to day to prevent writing, thinking, and making progress toward the deadline. This can range from things that limit thinking – a new issue that arises – to changes in the calendar or daily schedule – a person to care for, a new meeting – to who knows what. As a deadline approaches, it is hard to know what might arise, even if I have clearly blocked out time to work on a project. If I work further ahead, I can accept these changes and work around them more easily.

Would this approach work for everyone? No. It might not even have worked for me earlier as a student or as a sociologist where I had greater capacity to sit down and write a lot in one long sitting and had fewer interruptions or impediments to such sessions. Deadlines can be helpful motivators, even if some work ahead of them and others work on projects more closely to their due dates.

The four easy steps to writing a novel

Writing a novel in one month has become a popular goal: “just head over to the NaNoWriMo website and check out how many people have actually done it: More than 165,000 people participated in 2009, and more than 30,000 managed to crank out the 50,000-word goal.”

This sort of guide from Wired that reduces a novel this size to four smaller steps is actually a good reminder of the writing process. It is a common perception that writers are geniuses, able to crank out inspired complete works in one extended session. In reality, writing requires sitting down, working on small chunks, and repeatedly doing this. With this method, reaching 50,000 words isn’t actually that hard – what would be much harder would be to write those 50,000 words and then edit and re-edit everything to craft a coherent and interesting work.