Staying Loose Versus Staying on Schedule—Pause Before You Set a Due Date

Clock fleur de lisAt what moment do you schedule the due date for a book manuscript? When do you dare make the commitment to deliver?

I’ve answered these questions many times during my years as a freelance book editor. Clients require a due date. Publishers want to know when they can expect a manuscript. Of course. They have a right to make those requests. And I comply.

However, the truth is that I am often just guessing. Or telling people what they want to hear. Or both. And when my due date is unrealistic, I pay the price by working evenings and weekends and pulling the occasional all-nighter.

When will your book be done? I only wish I knew.

What I often want to tell people—and don’t—is that their deadlines are meaningless. People frequently set these dates without considering whether they’ll actually make time to write, whether they’ve done enough research, or whether they have anything to say in the first place.

For years I’ve seen my fear of setting due dates as a personal failing. But recently I’m reading about smart people with experiences that back me up. For example:

  • Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits wrote 50,000 words for his new book, scrapped them all on the basis of feedback from reviewers, and started over. I admire that. It’s gutsy. But can I produce 50,000 words for a client and then announce my intention to scrap them all? I hesitate to consider the consequences.
  • Denise Shekerjian wrote Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born, a book of conversations with 40 winners of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grants.” Many of these creative people testify to the importance of “staying loose”—allowing for time to experiment, flounder, fail, and wait for connections between ideas to appear on their own. But can I tell clients who have a production schedule that I need to “stay loose” for a while with their book project? I can just see the look on their faces.

So, when do you commit to finish your manuscript? And how do you set a date that spares you from suffering?

I’m no longer sure how to answer these questions. I’ve got hints, such as writing a book proposal first and allowing more time for the first edition of a book than subsequent revisions. But I feel largely in the dark.

If you’ve got answers, I welcome them.