Writing to deadline: pragmatism vs. perfectionism

cartoon of ticking clock

A student recently asked me a question about writing to deadline:

Hi Clare I totally get the need to edit, and to take time to hone your writing. However, in my job in communications, there is always more work than time, and deadlines tend to be pretty tight. Articles for our website or FAQ documents need to be turned around quickly, and I think my challenge is rather spending too much time pondering and perfecting, while other tasks pile up. So my question is, how do you strike the right balance between pragmatism and perfectionism?


I prompted Vicky’s question by revealing the amount of time I allocate to my writing process. Many people are surprised that I spend only 20% of my time writing but 50% editing. My point is that great writing is more the result of editing than it is the actual writing. I also believe this bias towards editing helps us hit any deadline. Here’s why:

Knowing that the magic happens in the editing stage frees you up to get something – anything – down on that blank page. It’s a question of quickly getting what you need to say written without worrying about how cringeworthy the result is. So, getting comfortable with what one writer I know calls the Ugly First Draft will naturally speed your writing process.

You’ll also get that ugly first draft down quicker if you are clear from the outset who your reader is and what you need to tell them – that’s the research bit. Bearing these questions in mind at the writing and editing stages keeps you focused, thus putting a limit on the amount of pondering and perfecting that needs to be done. It stops you sweating the small stuff in favour of the big wins.

Sometimes, we have to be kind to ourselves, too and let pragmatism reign. Remember ‘perfect is the enemy of done’. The great thing about online writing is you can always go back and rework it. Print copy is a different matter. But no one expects Austen-worthy style and polish anywhere other than, well, an Austen novel. When that deadline is looming, all you have to do is make sure your writing is as good as it can be – by which I mean as useful to the reader as it can be.

Here's a more detailed look at the writing process.

To help get that first draft down quicker take a look at this quick and easy method to structure your writing.

And here are the essential questions you need to ask before you even start writing.

If you're worried, or being told, you're writing too slowly, check out this post on how long writing should take.