Productivity Hacks: Handle Your Screenwriting Deadlines Like a Boss

Deadlines are nothing new and are utilized across practices, art forms, task lists and industries. We’ve all explored them, talked about them, considered them, and many of us use them on a regular basis. But for most people, and especially writers who are constantly up for delivering complex, often personal work, it may turn out that it’s not quite as simple as setting a deadline, meeting it right on the dot, and then moving on to the next one with gusto.

Yes, in a perfect world, we should all be able to set realistic but ambitious deadlines and meet them at every turn, but in my many years working with screenwriters and TV writers, I’ve discovered that it’s just not that simple. Every writer responds differently to deadlines, and therefore develops a different internal conversation around them. While some writers are able to continuously set deadlines and use them to push their work forward consistently and methodically and therefore feel empowered, many others find that it’s often a lot more complicated, if not outright defeating to them. 

And for the record, the deadlines I am writing about here are exclusively those that writers set developing their own material. When developing on assignment or in a room, time tables are different, and the writer is obligated to meet them. So those deadlines that are part of a job are NOT what I’m talking about.

When thinking about how you utilize deadlines, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Deadlines are there to support and structure the process.

In other words, you use deadlines to move your screenwriting forward, to set expectations for your creative timeline, to have clear goals to hit in order to meet a target, to set goals and deliver on them. Deadlines should serve the process and help you move your writing forward. However, meeting the deadline is not the ultimate purpose, and sacrificing quality in order to meet a writing goal can be a stumbling block.

Example: A few months ago, one of my writers had wrapped up one season in a writer’s room, and had a month before she was going into her next position. Eager to generate a new writing sample (which we both agreed she needed) during this rare stretch of downtime, the writer and I sat down on her first day out of the room, and made a plan for how she will generate her shiny new pilot (which she had broken during her previous hiatus) during this limited time.

We set thoughtful, ambitious-but-achievable deadlines: Deadlines for V1 and V2 of the outline. Deadlines for revisions. Deadline for draft. And, for the most part, we were on track. Until… The writer got notes on V2 of the outline and reached out to me:

“I can keep writing and hit our deadlines, but I worry that there is a conceptual flaw in the material that will only be more emphasized in draft.”

Always an A-student, the writer had a hard time letting go of the deadline commitment she had made, even though she already knew that hitting all of her deadlines will not equate to delivering a stellar draft.

Another writer was working hard to develop a TV concept he was having a tough time breaking. He was working hard to put all the pieces in place, but ultimately found himself getting frustrated that, while he was taking the time to really think through the building blocks he was putting in place for the series in mind, he was also blowing the all-too-ambitious and, in the great scheme of things, arbitrary deadlines he had originally set for himself.

Which is when I had to remind him: We use deadlines in service of process and efficiency. When developing material on spec, we don’t curtail process in service of a deadline.

At the end of the day, and as much as I love deadlines (and I really REALLY do!) it’s not just about hitting them.

What it is about is generating great work, and using your deadlines to help you get there systematically. If your work is subpar because you rushed to get it out, no one is going to give you an A for hitting your timeline marks. It’s not about velocity. It’s about generating a really great screenplay or TV pilot.

And listen, I am all about discovering your velocity, seeing where you can accelerate it, exploring how to become a more efficient and successful writer. But you do that by learning HOW to work best with goals and deadlines, rather than just setting deadlines that you think – for whatever reason – that you should be able to hit…

Most writers don’t write well when feeling defeated.

When setting your deadlines, you want to set them knowing that, while they are aggressive, you should be able to meet them, and maybe even exceed them every once in a while. No writer should set deadlines knowing he is going to miss them every time. Your deadlines should set you up for success, help you feel empowered in your process, rather than make you feel like a failure again and again.

One more thing to keep in mind is that failing to meet a deadline is only going to be motivating so many times. In my estimation? Once, maybe twice. After that, if you keep missing your deadlines, missing them just becomes part of your process, that thing that is always a bit of a thorn in your side. Screenwriting and TV writing as professions are challenging enough. You don’t have to make it any tougher for yourself. And the thing is… No one writes better when constantly feeling as though they are failing at the thing they are after. In my experience, writers tend to work much more effectively when they feel accomplished and capable, rather than falling behind all. the. time. 

Is it working for you?

The most important thing about deadlines is setting them in a way that best supports your unique process. If slow-and-steady is your thing, then don’t lean towards aggressive, impossible-to-meet deadlines. Set the sort of deadlines that will allow you, at your pace, to meet them and maybe even exceed them. Of course, you can always try to accelerate, but remember to do it gradually, a little bit at a time, instead of setting unrealistic deadlines and somehow expecting to suddenly show up a whole different writer.

On the flip side, if deadlines motivate you and you are able to find a way to meet them every time, be realistic but ambitious. Challenge yourself to deliver what you can, and maybe try for the extra mile every once in a while. However, you can’t keep accelerating and pushing without repercussion, so be sure to not burn yourself out on those deadlines!

A few hacks to help you set effective screenwriting deadlines: 

  • When starting a new project, never just set out to define the date by which you want to arrive at the finish line, i.e. the completed screenplay or TV pilot. In order to make sure you stay on track, make sure that every deadline has at least 4 milestones baked into it, such as completing tools, treatments, outlines, or specific acts. That way, if you fall short on one, you can accelerate your pace or adjust your final deadline to accommodate for extra time. Better to adjust proactively earlier in the process than blow your deadline.
  • Observe your own velocity. Don’t set deadlines based on how quickly you want to write, or how efficiently you think you should. Set deadlines based on past writing behavior, that you should be able to meet, even if they are a bit ambitious. Then, see if there are places to accelerate your process, even just by 5 or 10 percent.
  • If you are failing to meet your deadline at every turn, then you’re not setting them with full consideration of the writer that you are and what it takes for you to generate new work. In the long run, it’s easier to adjust the deadline than it is to change the built-in habits of the writer.
  • Deadlines are not for everyone! If you find that deadlines only cause you to feel intimidated and therefore less productive, consider structuring your process using other methods or a less rigid structure, at least until you get the hang of it.
  • Reward yourself! Once you’ve successfully bested a big deadline, don’t forget to mark the moment by rewarding yourself or celebrating your accomplishment!

Most importantly, remember this: Every writer is unique, and it’s your job as a writer to identify the processes and methods that best work for you when developing your own work, without the deadlines of a writer’s room or the rigid schedule of a writing assignment. In order to one day be affective in those aforementioned scenarios, you have to master your own process. And one of the first steps to doing so successfully is figuring out what works for you, what motivates you, and how to become the most efficient screenwriter, on top of her process and her craft.