Why someone else should set your writing deadlines


Posted Nov. 28, 2018

Bad writing can impose substantial costs on your organization, and we've written manymanymany times on why that happens and how much it costs.
One reason is that bad writing can trigger Parkinson's Law, which states that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." That means unclear and generic writing in a business environment can result in the reader delaying or not taking the intended action. For example, you can lose sales if your writing fails to convey a sense of urgency or clarify timelines to a customer.
But Parkinson's Law can also cause bad writing in the first place, as well as contribute to procrastination for a writer. In a seminal 2002 study, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied how to stop procrastination. They required three groups to each write three papers.
  • Group 1 had to finish all three papers by the end of the term but had no other specific deadlines.
  • Group 2 had to finish each paper individually by a specific deadline spread over the course of the term.
  • Group 3 had to set their own deadlines for all three papers.
Missing a deadline would impose a 1% penalty on the paper's grade.
Group 1 fared the worst: they were the most likely to turn the papers in late and got the worst grades because they had the most errors. Group 3 did better: they were more likely to be on time and get better grades. But it was Group 2 (externally set deadlines) that performed the best in terms of meeting deadlines and scoring high grades.
The researchers concluded that self-imposed deadlines “were not always as effective as some external deadlines in boosting task performance.”
Timothy Pychyl of Carleton University, a leading scholar on procrastination, explained to Fast Company, "The deadline isn’t real, and self-deception is a big part of procrastination."
What does this mean for writing projects in a business environment?
First, an external authority should set the writing deadline. If a manager or team leader doesn't set the deadline to start, the writer should ask for one. That said, the deadline should be reasonable – commensurate with the work required – but firm.
Second, missed deadlines should result in a meaningful consequence. Only your workplace can determine what’s appropriate here – perhaps that person will become responsible for a tedious office chore the next week, or if they repeatedly miss a series of deadlines, they may be subject to a note in their employee record that could impact their next performance review. You might also want to balance punitive measures for missed deadlines with rewards for successfully meeting or beating deadlines. That will help writers feel that their writing activities are (literally) rewarding rather than unpleasant and undesirable.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 25 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.