The Born Freelancer on the Sanctity of Deadlines

Also: R.I.P. Sam Levene & Keith Maskell

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Douglas Adams, the late great British author of the SF humour classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy used to talk about the whooshing sound of deadlines as they flew past his head.

I love his work. And I love that story. But it was set in another time, another place. (In fact it was in the late 1970s at the BBC in London.)

The reality is that even then such behaviour was rarely tolerated. Adams was an exception in an exceptional situation. Today I doubt such behaviour could be tolerated at all. And I suspect his output would have been greater as a result. 

For the vast majority of we mere mortal freelancers, deadlines are sacrosanct. Have always been and always will be. And yet, incredibly, I hear some still don’t quite get it.

Why they should

When I started freelancing on radio I learned the first “golden rule” – always turn up on time. It didn’t matter if you were sick or hung over – you had to turn up and “perform”. Naturally there were exceptions – like death. (Your own, of course.) 

When I started freelance writing I learned the first “golden rule” there too – always make your deadline. And always be accurate. (OK, so I learned two golden rules.)  

As a freelancer it’s easy to believe we are on our own and that our actions do not impact anyone but ourselves.

The truth is we are part of a much larger (and invisible to us) chain of people and events. 

If you commit to a deadline you are committing to being part of a team that has promised to produce content at a certain time. If you fail to make your deadline you fail all the editors, illustrators, layout personnel, etc. who cannot do their jobs until you have completed yours. Not to mention your awaiting audience.

Think of it like a building. We create the foundations. If we don’t turn up on time, the building cannot be erected. The rest of the construction crew have to wait. Or maybe somebody else will have to be hired at the last minute to do our job. It will all make for some very unhappy colleagues.

Making deadlines = you are acting like a professional. Not making them = you are not.

I once asked an editor which was more important, making my copy perfect or getting it in on time. He looked at me and said if I had to ask maybe I wasn’t the right person for the job. I didn’t pursue it; I got my work in on deadline. Perfection? What was the point if it never saw publication. After that I always strove for what was only as perfect as possible given the deadline (spec projects aside). 

Making deadlines means you can be trusted

When you fail to meet a deadline, no matter how good your work, your editor/producer learns not to trust you. You hold up the process. You give them unnecessary extra work. No editor or producer will put up with that for long. On the other hand, an editor/producer who knows you do good work and always make your deadline is an editor/producer who can stop worrying about you. Not having to worry means they will be well-disposed towards hiring you again.

But I have other things to do

Deadlines are not suggestions – they are mutually agreed-to commitments. 

This is not high school where a late assignment might just get a few grades knocked off. Real life is a pass/fail situation. If you know you might not make a deadline due to an emergency, let your employer know asap. But even better – just make the deadline. 

You don’t go out to socialize, you don’t sit at home and watch Netflix – you make your deadline. It’s that simple.

When you have a regular “beat” it is easier to make provisions for an emergency. I have a back up column for this site, for example, always ready to go in the event I am ill or indisposed. This way I am able to make my deadline no matter what. (In a future post I can write about other techniques to insure deadline compliance).

You may be able to negotiate deadlines

If, upon accepting an assignment, you feel the deadline is unreasonable, then that is the time to speak up. Some editors/producers have a nasty habit of believing we freelancers have no life other than that which we spend in servitude to them. So sometimes a deadline is just a first option. If you accept it then they lock it in. Other times it is already carved in stone. Best for you to know which it is right away.

But a deadline impedes my creativity


Nothing inspires creativity and good work more than a deadline. (Well, ok, a paycheck is also pretty good inspiration!) Without a deadline most working freelancers would never complete anything (this scribe included.) A looming deadline is usually the only force that can productively constrain many of us to sit down at a keyboard. It is in many ways both a hated bully and a beloved muse. 

Writing can be a painful, arduous task from which sane people rightfully stay well away. Deadlines give the rest of us the necessary gun at our head to do the job and to do it at the top of our game.

The takeaway

Bottom line: when you get a deadline make that deadline – unless you want to hear the whooshing sound of your employer assigning all your future freelancing work to others.


R.I.P. Sam Levene

Sam Levene passed away in November 2016 after a lengthy illness. Sam was a friend and colleague and, in many ways, mentor. I interviewed him for this site about one of his many passions, radio drama, when it came to an end at the CBC. It still makes compelling reading. Sam provided an eloquent elegy to a genre (and a medium) we both loved and spent many hours discussing and remembering over numerous lunches. One of his first big professional breaks came as a young producer on the legendary CBC TV current affairs show, “This Hour Has Seven Days”.

Later Sam made significant contributions to the cultural landscape of this country during his many years as an award winning CBC TV producer in documentaries, arts & entertainment and in drama. Much later in his life (when I knew him) he had transitioned into a freelancer (and CMG member) and became an outstanding radio documentarian.

His home at CBC Radio, The Sunday Edition, recognized his unique talents by replaying some of his best material during their on air tribute. What I will remember most was how much fun it was to talk with Sam. He was quietly passionate about Canada, our cultural life and times, and about respect for all. But he had a marvelous sense of humour and a great fondness for the absurdities of life. He will be missed. My condolences on behalf of this site to his family.

R.I.P. Keith Maskell

I was also saddened to learn of Keith Maskell’s recent passing. As the former go-to person for freelancers at the CMG, Keith was a never ending source of information, inspiration and support. I never met him in person but through years of emails I came to respect Keith as a man of integrity, passion and commitment. I’d like to add my condolences to his family.

Posted on February 8, 2017 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , , ,

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