I like to play with fire when it comes to writing on a deadline. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a serial procrastinator, waiting until the last minute something is due before finishing it. Sometimes I don’t even start until the night before.
I’ve always been told how much easier it is to not procrastinate and that I would be prouder of my writing if I just took more time on it.
However, recently I was able to put that idea to the test. In a writing class last quarter, I was working on an original comedy script. At first, I tried writing my pages for the week in advance. I’m not a naturally comedic person, so I was conscious of the challenges I would face in the class.
These challenges presented themselves to me quite quickly. I wasn’t funny, the structure of my episode wasn’t working, and I was struggling to find the voices of my characters. At first, I thought comedy just “wasn’t my thing.” And then, one fateful week, I got really busy.
With everything on my to-do list, writing my pages was not a high priority. So I saved it until literally the last minute … or, more realistically, four hours before they were due in class.
I’m a fast writer, so I was able to write 10 pages the day of my class with a few minutes to spare for lunch. I was just glad that I had something to turn in, but when I got to class for the table read, the pages ended up being a huge hit.
I didn’t understand how my writing, which I had started and finished hours before they were read, ended up being better received than writing I had spent much longer crafting.
And just to be sure it wasn’t a fluke, I tried again the next week.
I started to look back at pieces I had procrastinated on versus pieces I had spent a long time on, and I discovered that overwhelmingly my writing was better received when I had procrastinated on it.
At Craft Your Content, we’ve written about how procrastination is a part of the writing process, but generally I’ve seen a lot of writers put themselves down for procrastination.
What if you didn’t have to?
What if procrastination is a strategy for better writing?
So much of the literature on procrastination puts the blame on writers being lazy or dealing with some internal struggle that is messing with their psyche. Most of the articles I’ve read say that procrastination is a defense mechanism for the scared writer. But I’ve even read that if you’re a professional writer who procrastinates, you don’t really want to be a writer for a living.
For so long I’ve felt that I’ve been wasting my talents and my time as a writer by putting everything off until the last minute. I’ve also felt like an imposter every time I’ve gotten good feedback or succeeded.
Procrastination has always been a bad habit that must be broken. Something to be ashamed of.
While I’m not advocating for a total change in the dialogue surrounding procrastination, I do think that writers like me should stop being so hard on themselves whenever they have to jam out a piece of writing they pushed too close to the deadline.
I’m advocating for self-acceptance. And maybe even a little acceptance from those who judge us and assume we’re lazy or not as “inspired” as a professional writer should be.
Let’s stop dictating what a healthy writing routine is and consider that maybe procrastination isn’t always “procrastination.”
Some people write better under pressure.
And I have a theory why.
Humans, with our capacity for complex thought, tend to make our thoughts way too complex.
If I’m not writing under the pressure of time, I’m writing under the pressure of making every word, line, and idea both deliberate and perfect. Put simply, I overthink everything.
If I don’t have to finish something, I’ll never finish it. But when it comes to a deadline, Megan McArdle puts it nicely: “[A writer’s] fears of turning in nothing eventually surpasses their fears of turning in something terrible.”
I don’t think I’m making an unreasonable generalization when I say that most, if not all, writers are the worst overthinkers, second only to philosophers.
And in my opinion, overthinking gets in the way much more than procrastination does.
In my experience, and not just with my own pieces, overthinking makes writing worse.
I’m surrounded by writers every day who have different strengths and weaknesses, and they all have unique writing processes that work for them. However, the writers who I see struggling the most often are the ones who overthink every creative decision they make.
In a 10-week writing course, it once took a writer a whole week to decide whether or not they were going to use voiceover to inform their script. That’s 1/10th of their entire time to write a script wasted on a simple yes or no question (which should pretty much always be no unless you’re a voiceover unicorn). And it only got worse when that writer had to answer more complex, structural questions. Ten weeks seemed like plenty of time.
But then the time runs out … and you’re burnt out because you’ve been working hard for 10 weeks overthinking your writing.
When you don’t have the time to agonize over decisions, they become much easier to make.
Just don’t use this technique when making major life decisions. We’re talking about writing here, not surgery.
In an article praising procrastination, David L. Ulin describes it perfectly: “Writing, after all, is about giving up control, about seeing where an idea, a story takes us.”
If writing is about giving up control, then it’s also about going with your creative gut. Characters don’t “speak” to us. A story doesn’t have a mind of its own. The flow you achieve when writing is simply the creativity in your brain having full operational capacity.
It just so happens that I need a tight deadline to get me there.
If you’re a natural procrastinator, then you might already have this “writing under pressure” process down to a science. The defining trait, though, is whether you’re successful at it.
If you are not a successful procrastinator, or not a procrastinator at all, then there are ways to test the waters with this technique without risking an unmet deadline.
Set fake deadlines.
You’ve probably read this advice before on ways to stop procrastination. I even cringed while writing it.
Here’s the key though. Set a fake deadline, then wait until the very last minute to hit that deadline. Set a date and time to start working on the task, too, so that you don’t cheat and do it early. If that doesn’t work, you can also set a timer to turn up the pressure, and practice writing sprints to push yourself to the limit of how quickly you put words on a page.
With a fake deadline set into place, you can write under pressure with a buffer added for any revisions you might want or need to do before the real deadline.
I’d suggest the same technique for procrastinators who don’t write well under pressure, but who want to get better at it.
It’s the old fake it until you make it (or decide this process isn’t right for you) technique.
While it sounds ridiculous to want to become a procrastinator, writing under pressure is an excellent skill to have in the professional writing industry.
Writers rarely ever get the time they need for a project. Short deadlines do happen, and if you want to impress people, you’ll want to meet those deadlines with quality work to show for it.
Recently, I had to do a complete rewrite of a 60-page script with three days notice. If I were not a pro at writing under pressure, I would have cracked. My writing would have been incoherent, and I would have blown an opportunity.
So even if you never procrastinate on a writing project, you can add this as a skill on your ever-growing list.
I’ve used the words “procrastination” and “procrastinator” liberally in this article. It’s an easier way to refer to the waiting time between thinking about a writing project and actually doing it.
Procrastination has been consistently shamed in most fields as a negative trait, but I believe it’s only negative if your product isn’t up to par with your regular work, or it’s causing you unnecessary stress.
Writing quickly, however, isn’t something to be ashamed of. It’s actually something to celebrate.
Being able to write quickly means that you have the confidence and ability to execute your vision without hesitation. If anything, it shows that you have what it takes to be a successful and active professional writer. The tighter deadlines you can hit, the more work you can get.
So let go of unreasonable expectations about how long your writing process should take, what makes a “good” writing routine, and what makes a “good” writer.
Stop overthinking! Just sit back, have a beer, and wait until the absolute last minute to write.
Erika Rasso graduated from the University of Central Florida with a B.A. in English and marketing and is currently working on her MFA in Screenwriting at the University of California, Los Angeles. She has worked as a writing consultant, an editor for a literary journal, and an editor for an academic journal. In her free time, Erika enjoys writing short stories and screenplays (though mostly she just watches WAY too many shows on Netflix). She is the Director of Production for Craft Your Content.