We freelancers have a love/hate relationship with deadlines. We love them because there is nothing that will get your rear in a chair and your fingers typing like a looming client deadline.
Aaaaaand we also hate them because what gets our rear in the chair are twinges of panic at the idea of not getting the work done in time.
Deadlines are essential because they ensure that we finish the work and the client has a clear understanding of what they’re going to receive and when. (A client who understands the process and the timeline is a happy client.)
But how do we ensure that the deadlines will actually work for the projects? That we won’t be sitting at our desks writing copy and thinking, “Holy sh*t: There might not be enough time to do this”?
First, I want to get clear on how deadlines work. Deadlines aren’t dates that are imposed on us by clients, they are mutually agreed upon dates between you and the client at the beginning of the project.
You and your client will talk about when they’d like the work done, you’ll think about your schedule, and you’ll agree on a date that works for the both of you—and, again, all of that will happen at the outset.
There will never be an occasion when you promise to do the work and a client then demands an unreasonable deadline. When you send out your proposal, it includes a detailed scope of work, the cost, and the date you’ll deliver the work.
(Sometimes a client might request that you turn around work a little faster in the middle of a project, but you’ll only do that if you’re able to.)
My point is that you are partially in control of a project’s deadline…and that freaks some new copywriters out.
After all, how can you know how long it will take you to write something if you’ve never written it before? Or if you’re working with a new client? Or how long it will take them to review the work and send feedback?
The good news is that all of this is a lot easier to figure out—and has a lot more wiggle room—than you might initially think.
Remember that when you’re planning out a deadline, you’re planning in terms of days, not hours, and there are a lot of places to steal away some time to write copy throughout the course of a day. Yes, even if you also have a full-time job. And a significant other. And kids.
When you and your client are talking about a deadline, you need to move backward from when your client needs the finished (finalized and approved) copy in hand. And this doesn’t mean, for example, that they need the finalized copy the day the website goes live—it means they need it in time to give it to their web developer so the web developer has time to get it on the site before it goes live.
This isn’t your responsibility, of course, but it can help to think it through and point it out to clients—sometimes they forget other service providers’ timelines when they’re thinking through yours.
So, you know when your client needs final copy. Before that, you’re going to want to leave at least three or four full days for revisions—maybe even longer if you’re a newer copywriter. Remember, what has to happen is that you deliver your first draft of copy, your client reviews it and sends you feedback, and you revise it and then send through another version. And then maybe your client will have a few more tweaks you have to incorporate to get it finalized.
It can also help to remind your client that revisions are a normal part of the process—little tweaks to get it just right—but the faster they give you the feedback, the faster you can make the changes. If it’s absolutely crucial that they hit that finalized date, then it’s absolutely crucial that they give you feedback in a timely manner.
(And if a client seems to be taking their time to give feedback, a polite, “Hi, I just wanted to check in on the feedback. Keeping our timeline in mind, in order for me to make the changes and get you the finalized copy by [DATE] I’ll need your requested changes by [DATE OR TIME].” It’s not your fault if they’re not getting you feedback on time.)
From there, you’ve got your potential first draft date. (This will go into your proposal.) Now, look at your schedule: Is this possible for you?
Bear in mind all of the steps that your project has to go through once the proposal is approved. You’ll need to schedule an input call with your client. You’ll need to go through your creative brief and input notes and spend some time thinking it through and concepting. You’ll need to outline your messages. You’ll need to write the project, of course—and then you’ll also need to edit it. Editing should take at least half as long as writing it does.
The length of time for writing each type of project will be different—and the client, topic, industry, and a host of other things will affect that. But, of course, do your best to err on the side of giving yourself more time than you need.
Also, try to give yourself a night to sleep on your copy before you begin editing it. Giving your brain that “off” time to figure things out can net you better copy in the end.
And here’s another quick tip: end-of-day Friday is, for all intents and purposes, the same as first-thing Monday for the vast majority of clients…but it’s a huge difference for you. Giving yourself the weekend gives you a little extra bit of breathing room.
Of course, even when you plan out a client project carefully and give yourself plenty of time, life can get in the way. When that happens, you just have to make the time to get the work done. Maybe that involves skipping your normal downtime, or maybe it even involves late nights or pre-dawn writing sessions. The point is that you get it done and, with any luck, learn a lesson or two for next time.
There’s no perfect formula for setting a deadline and (like most things) you’ll get better at it the more you do it. The key is to give yourself enough time—even more than enough, if you can swing it—while still delivering the work in a timeframe your client is happy with.
Your turn! Do you love deadlines or do you dread them? (Or both?!) Let me know in the comments below.