Nobody wants to blow a deadline. But sometimes it happens. And whether it’s your fault (you completely forgot) or someone else’s (a key source wouldn’t return your calls), there’s a right and a wrong way to handle it. After five years as a special sections editor at Gambit Weekly, I’ve had plenty of freelancers blow deadlines … and blown a few myself. Here are some dos and don’ts when it comes to mitigating the damage.
DO tell your editor ASAP if you’re running into problems. The more notice you give editors, the more help they can give you. Your editor might be able to extend your deadline or tweak your assignment. Just remember, your editor is on your side and wants you to succeed, if for no other reason than if you don’t, she’s stuck doing your work for you at the eleventh hour. WHICH REALLY SUCKS.
Don’t go into needless detail. If you’re having a personal crisis, keep the details to yourself. It’s appropriate to say something like, “I’ve had a death in the family and must travel to attend the funeral,” but editors do not need to hear more than that. Same thing regarding technical difficulties. That’s your problem, not your editor’s, so don’t burden him with it. Frankly, if a freelancer uses technical difficulties as an excuse with me, I immediately write him off as someone who doesn’t know how to use Google drive or library computers.
Apologize for your mistake. In the print world especially, deadlines are very real and not at all flexible. Assume that by missing yours, you have upset the delicate balance that prevents chaos from raining down on the head of your frail, overworked editor, and apologize accordingly. No buts or pity-seeking. Simplicity is best. “I messed up, and I apologize.” Follow up by asking, “How can I make this better?” Which brings us to the next tip.
Offer solutions. If you couldn’t get an interview with the source your editor requested, have a back-up source ready to go. If you forgot an assignment, offer to forego food and sleep until it’s done. Show your willingness to repair your mistake, and you might repair the relationship. I messed up an assignment earlier this year…I was careless, misread it and wrote up one interview when the feature was supposed to include three. You can bet this inconvenienced my editor. I ended up scrambling to redo the feature at the last minute, which sucked, but sometimes you have no choice.
After the dust settles, lay low for a while. You just burned your editor pretty bad. Now is not the time to ask if you’re blackballed or request future assignments. It’s possible your editor might want to cut ties. But if you have a productive working relationship with this person and a history of turning in good work on time, your editor may see fit to work with you again. Just let him do it on his terms. If you do get another assignment, turn it in early, with much gratitude. Your editor just gave you a second chance, and that’s no small thing.