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April 5, 2016

Does Missing a Deadline Make Us Unprofessional?

Confident woman with text: Do We Have a Professional Reputation?

As writers, we face deadlines and commitments every time we turn around. Even before we’re published, we might commit to beta reading or critiquing another writer’s work by a certain date. Or we might have a deadline for a contest entry, etc.

After we’re published, we have even more deadlines. We owe our finished manuscript to our editor to start the publishing process on time. We need to make the necessary editing changes and turn our work around by the next deadline.

Even as a self-published author, we have to reserve editors months in advance, giving ourselves a deadline to finish our manuscript. We often have to set release date deadlines to schedule advertising, blog tours, or reviewers.

No matter where we are along the publishing path, we might get asked to mentor, answer questions, do a favor, etc., and all of those commitments require time and dedication. Add in blogging or a side business, and we have more deadlines and commitments on our time. (Not counting day-job deadlines or family time commitments.)

In short, we’re all likely to become very familiar with the pressure of deadlines and the expectation of meeting our commitments. So what happens when we can’t meet them? How bad is it for us and our reputation?

Why Is a Professional Reputation Important?

Most of us probably want to have a reputation for being a professional. After all, no one enjoys working with someone who’s going to flake on them.

If we tell someone we need something done by a certain date, we usually have a reason for giving that deadline. Most of us don’t give others deadlines just for the heck of it.

We might need beta reader feedback by X time so we can complete the revisions before our manuscript is due to the editor. We might need a completed cover by a certain time to set up a pre-order. Or we might simply have other projects scheduled for the following weeks, and the deadline hits when we have time to follow up, etc.

The forums for self-published authors are filled with complaints about freelancers who messed up their release schedule—a cover artist who doesn’t deliver on time or an editor who seemingly falls off the planet. So we know from the waiting-side how we view someone differently when they flake on us.

We’re less likely to continue a beta-reading partnership with someone who messes up our deadlines because they didn’t meet theirs. We’re less likely to reuse a freelancer who trashed our release schedule.

How Can a Professional Reputation Help Us?

The same concept applies when we’re the one with deadlines hanging over our head. A professional reputation can help us in many ways:

  • In the traditional publishing world, agents and editors sing the praises of authors who meet deadlines. Why is traditional publishing so slow? To hedge bets against flakes. A missed deadline can cost serious money and affect dozens of employees, departments, and release schedules.
  • The number one complaint about beta readers is that they flake on providing feedback, so if we meet our commitments, we might find it easier to maintain beta reader and/or critique partner exchanges.
  • In the self-publishing world, freelance editors often schedule months in advance and don’t get paid if the client needs to change dates, so they prefer clients who don’t make unreasonable, last-minute requests for changes.
  • If we consistently blog on a schedule, others might see us as more of an authority or take our blogging more seriously.
  • If we have a publishing side business, we won’t stay in business for very long (or won’t be able to charge premium prices) if we disappoint our customers by not delivering to their expectations.

Obviously, those bullet points are just a handful of the reasons we could all come up with for why it’s important to keep our professional reputation. We could probably name several dozen more, just by thinking of how flakes have annoyed us.

Because of that importance, most of us don’t want to ruin the reputation we’ve worked so hard to build, especially not over something preventable. So we stress and stay up late and inhale caffeine to meet those commitments.

But What Happens When We Can’t Meet Our Commitments?

I’m by no means perfect, but I’ve always tried to meet the big expectations. Going all the way back to my school days, I’m one of those who’s always managed to pull a deadline completion out of the impossible, and a look at my blog here will show that I haven’t missed a Tuesday or Thursday blog-post day since the beginning, almost six years ago.

In other words, commitments matter to me. If someone tells me they need something by X time, and I agree to do it, I’ll rearrange my priorities and schedule to make it happen.

But bad things happen sometimes. No matter our level of dedication, we can’t be perfect, and we can’t control everything.

Because we don’t want to hurt our reputation, we might try for the impossible anyway. We might think that if we just xyz, we might still be able to…

But no. We can’t always fix it.

How dark will the resulting black mark be on our reputation?

I Don’t Have the Answers…

I’m facing this situation now. I’d been struggling with my day job schedule for the last several months anyway, but I kept pushing myself because…reputation.

Those choices exacerbated some health issues I’d been ignoring for a while, and at the same time, other health issues reached the point of needing attention now as well. Cue the missing of deadlines.

My editors understood and have been more flexible with their schedule than I have any right to expect. But there was one item on my schedule that couldn’t be flexible.

Last fall, I’d signed up for the local Desert Dreams conference. This is a great regional-size conference that’s held only every other year, so I always make a point to go, even though this year it fell during my annual day-job hell week.

I’d also volunteered to present a workshop (a new one!), and I was going to do my first(!) book signing. I was all geared up with excitement to go.

But then I was suddenly scheduled for mouth and jaw surgeries and started having vision issues that made it difficult to get any work done. Still, I did everything I could to make this conference work despite the day-job issue.

I was able to cut back on my day job for a couple of weeks last month and attempt to catch up. I conferred with my surgeon about setting a goal of getting everything done in one surgery. I emphasized how important the timing was so I’d be recovered in time. I made all the necessary appointments so my vision problems would be fixed in time.

I still thought I could make it happen. I still tried to make it happen. My name was on the schedule and everything, so I couldn’t just cancel. *shudders*

Then the surgery was pushed back a week, giving me less time to recover before the conference. And the surgeon determined I needed multiple surgeries after all. And my eye doctor misdiagnosed my vision problems, so I’m still struggling to focus on anything—literally. And, and, and…

So I had to back out of the Desert Dreams conference. No workshop. No book signing. No appearance at all.

I’m so disappointed in myself, and I’m so sorry to miss everyone at the conference. But I finally had to face the truth that no amount of hoping would make me heal faster or the treatments work better. No amount of hoping would make the impossible happen.

Will I forever have a black mark on my reputation now? Will I be seen as less professional?

I don’t know. But sometimes life happens, and all we can do is our best.

We can hope that if we’ve managed to build a professional reputation over a long time, we might get some leeway when things out of our control go wrong. So maybe that’s yet another reason to strive to be professional every chance we can. *smile*

What makes someone a professional in your eyes? Do you take someone’s professionalism into account when choosing whether to work with them? What have you done to build a professional reputation? Have you ever had to miss a deadline or fail to meet a commitment? How did you handle it, and what were the consequences?

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What do you think?

14 Comments on "Does Missing a Deadline Make Us Unprofessional?"

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Julie Glover

I think it’s vastly different to be someone who regularly misses deadlines than someone who, for reasons outside their control, misses a deadline now and again. I recently asked for two additional days to complete a large copy editing job because of a computer issue that wiped away five days of my productivity; I hated having to make that request, but what a relief when the client said that wasn’t a problem.

It’s also important not to promise what you truly can’t deliver. Too often, we can get ourselves in trouble by thinking we can meet a deadline, when that will only happen if every single thing goes our way. And life just isn’t like that. We need a little built-in cushion in case someone gets sick or your technology dies or whatever. In my case, had I lost three days of productivity, I still would have been fine. But five days? Not so much.

Lara Gallin
Lara Gallin
One of my best friend’s beta readers was a bit on the flakey side. When she spoke to me about it this other person had already had her manuscript for a good couple of months but hadn’t come back to her. I don’t know if she heard back in the end, the sad thing is that she really needed the feedback from them. A good reputation for honouring commitments is a high priority for me. Hiring someone unreliable is an expense I don’t have the money for. I don’t consider missing a deadline due to unforseen events as unreliable, stuff happens. As long as they were honest about it and their ability to complete the work under the circumstances, I’d never hold it against them or consider them to be unprofessional. One of the main reasons I want to self-publish is because I know meeting the deadlines for a publisher could be a problem for me. I have fluctuating health issues and if it kicks off, it kicks off. There’s nothing I can do about it. I also think I’d struggle with being contractually obliged to come up with an idea and produce a book from it within a set time frame. Alas I’m not one of those people who brim with inspiration and feel compelled to write every day. I wish that I were, it would make things so much easier! I’m thinking that if I can at least set my own deadlines, it will make a stressful process… Read more »
Kerry Meacham
Kerry Meacham

Hi Jami,

Long time, no comment. Even though I don’t comment often, I do read your blog and find it quite often applies to what I do now.

At the end of the day, you have a lot of ‘deposits’ in the professional writer bank. You helped me out on more than one occasion, and specifically one time you helped me hammer out some writing overnight. It was more than I expected, but I have a feeling that’s just you. I believe the universe conspires to do good for people like you, Jami. I know you’ve probably done this for countless others, so when you have to take the occasional ‘life happens withdrawal’ then we understand.

I’m sure not being able to do the DD Conference killed you. I hope they understood the situation. I know everyone here does.

I hope you get well soon. *spousally compliant hugs*

Kindest regards,

Kerry

Anne R. Allen

Stuff happens, Jami. You did the right thing to take care of yourself. You won’t be able to teach anybody if you’re dead. 🙂 We need you!

Almost every conference I’ve ever attended has had some presenters who were no-shows. Anne Perry was supposed to keynote at one and something happened at the airport when she was about to board her plane in London and she couldn’t fly to the US. Last year Chuck Wendig got really sick when he was supposed to present at a conference where I was teaching. These people are hugely respected professionals. Just like you 🙂

I’m doing what might be considered an “unprofessional” thing this week, moving my blog from WordPress back to Blogger, six months after moving to WP, because all the tech was driving me nuts and my doctor said I had to decrease my stress or I wouldn’t be around much longer. So I’ll be back to an “amateurish” free blogger blog instead of an expensive website. Will that make me less of a professional? I don’t think so.

Real professionals take care of themselves. I hope the surgery goes well!

Tracy Campbell

Hi Jami,

Let me begin by saying how sorry I am that you’re having problems with your eyesight. Second, I would feel the same way as you did if I had to back out, but we are human and life does throw us curve balls. And I don’t think your reputation is ruined one bit. You did everything humanly possible to attend. Feel better soon and take some time out for yourself.

Tracy

P.S. This post hit home for me too.

Robin
Robin

Sometimes deadlines have to be adjusted. We are human beings with imperfect knowledge of the future, so the best laid plans of mice and men can utterly fail to be implementable. Not because we aren’t professional, or because we don’t take our committments seriously, but because the furute didn’t match our expectations…
When a deadline has to shift, I want to work with someone who will tell me so, as early as possible, so we can get on a realistic, do-able schedule.
What can’t slip is quality. Tell me you can’t get it by friday, fine, I’ll adjust and take it on tuesday. but please don’t give me half baked crap on Friday just because that was the “deadline.”
I’d rather it be RIGHT a little late, than wrong on time.

Jennifer Barricklow

Missing a deadline or commitment because of surgery is *not* unprofessional. Speakers and presenters miss events all the time because of illness or transportation glitches. Disappointment is reasonable in those cases, but judgement is not.

I think your reputation is safe. 🙂

Renee Regent

Jami,

So sorry to hear things aren’t going well at the moment. But it will get better, and I wish you a speedy recovery.
I try my best to meet deadlines, be courteous, get back to people, etc. But sometimes things happen beyond our control, such as your situation. So consider that all the times you did what you were supposed to do as a hedge against having to let people down now. If you have a reputation for being pro, I think people are inclined to be more forgiving when you can’t meet expectations. You must also be disappointed, but there will be other conferences. Your health is most important! Hang in there!

Sharon

I agree with Jennifer. You get a pass when you’re sick or have to have surgery and it keeps you from meeting a commitment. I hope the organizers of the conference were understanding.
Someone else mentioned building extra time into our schedule for things to go wrong. That’s a great idea. Too bad I’m not very forgiving of myself when I don’t meet my self-imposed deadlines. I have to have completion dates for every phase of my projects to insure I stay on track. I don’t want to ever fall into the mindset that I can “take time off” from my writing just because there isn’t an editor or publisher holding a deadline over my head.
And I hate having to ask for extensions or grace (when something unforeseen comes up). I want to be known for always delivering on time (or better yet-early).
Hope your recovery is going well.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. 🙁 Well, it doesn’t blacken your reputation to me, since you have a valid reason for missing those deadlines!

Speaking in general, it depends on how forgiving the reader (or client, editor, etc.) are, and how willing they are to give you the benefit of the doubt if you don’t tell them what’s happening. I’m not saying we should be infinitely forgiving of editors who keep missing deadlines, especially as we pay them a lot, but yeah, it depends on how much you are willing to be understanding. Of course, having a good relationship with (or even being friends with) them would make a difference, as we would probably be more likely to forgive them than if they only had a formal, detached relationship with us.

But I tend to be someone who is overly soft-hearted. I can tolerate excessive tardiness from friends, even from those who are consistently very late (e.g. 30 mins or more). My mom says it’s because of very indulgent people like me that a lot of folks come to not take punctuality that seriously. XD It’s hard for me to scold a friend for being late, though…I’ll see what I can do. The people around me tend to be fine with 5-10 mins of tardiness, however; some will even tolerate 15 mins. Tolerating 30+ mins is definitely extreme…

Karen McFarland

It’s no secret to anyone that knows me that I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. May I just say that it is one of the most frustrating things to deal with because it makes me so unreliable. Invariably, I am not able to keep to a schedule, and when I do have a set appointment, I panic because I don’t know if I will be able to follow through or not. So I can only imagine how upset you are Jami, since you’ve made it a point to keep your promise, deliver on time and follow through. Yet, life happens. And there is no way we can foresee what will happen in the future. All we can do is our best. That’s all. From the sound of your post, you’ve had some extenuating circumstances to deal with that must take precedence. So worry not my dear friend. No doubt you will be missed, but people will understand.

Laurie Evans

Sorry you’re having health problems. Health problems make writing so much harder. I have a few chronic conditions myself.

I dragged my feet starting to self-publish because I knew I’d have to set *some* deadlines, and publish on a semi-regular schedule so I could get more readers as quickly as possible. My helper and I have planned out a schedule through July…we’re going to work on fall through the end of the year, soon. Some of this planning makes me nervous, but without a plan I do nothing at all.

The ideal situation would be for me to bank a story or two for when an emergency happens…that would be hard, though. I feel like I’m barely keeping my head above water now.

Feel better! Any time I see someone having to withdraw from a conference or something; I’m always sure it wasn’t a decision made lightly. Like others said, you have enough “cred”. 🙂

Christina Hawthorne

This is a disease sweeping through this country and I’ve been guilty of succumbing. We struggle, find a way to make it work, and then decide the strategy was so effective we should use it to fit even MORE into our schedule. Each MORE is a domino. That balancing-act schedule becomes an impressive line of dominos waiting for the push and then it’s a mess.

Worse, this has all happened to you because you’re a generous person who fails to say, “No.” If I could give you a gift it’d be for you to take up residence in a mountain cabin beside a lake somewhere for a MONTH. Rediscover life before all the go—go—go. You owe it to yourself. Please take care.

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