Josna Rege

307. Deadline

In blogs and blogging, Media, reflections, seasons, Stories, Words & phrases, Work, writing on April 4, 2015 at 7:41 pm
Times New Roman

Times New Roman

There are literal deadlines and metaphorical ones, hard deadlines and soft ones, met deadlines and, sadly, many missed ones. But is the deadline itself a given, as inevitable and inexorable as Death itself? Or is it a function of certain kinds of technology, on the one hand, and certain ways of living, on the other? What would life look like without deadlines?

But I get ahead of myself. This is D, on Day 4 of A Printer’s Alphabet, and so I must begin with the term as it was used in the printing—specifically, the newspaper— industry in the 1920s, where it began with a literal meaning and developed a metaphorical sense which crossed over into general use.

Humphrey Bogart as a New York City newspaper editor in Deadline U.S.A. (1952)

Humphrey Bogart as a New York City newspaper editor in Deadline U.S.A. (1952)

The literal deadline was the point on the bed of the cylinder press after which the type would get smashed or would otherwise fail to print properly. On an offset press that used metal plates, it was the point on the plate beyond which the image would not print properly. There is a maximum page size for any press and once it is filled, there is simply no more room. One-page newssheets or the front pages of major newspapers would be held for late-breaking news but once the deadline had been reached, that was it: the paper had to go to press.

Limits of space soon translated into limits of time: the deadline for copy to be included in the morning edition of a given newspaper was set at midnight or thereabouts the night before, after which any further news would have to wait until the afternoon edition of the next day (that of course being in the times—not so long ago—when major dailies had two print runs).

Most dictionaries will tell you that the word deadline originates in the American Civil War, when guards had orders to shoot to kill prisoners who ventured out into or beyond a area demarcated, often by a makeshift, or sometimes an imaginary, line around their temporary enclosure. Ted Haigh suggests that the term might have entered the printing vocabulary, not without a sense of irony, because the reporters, editors, and printers of the day were frequently the same person.

photo credit: Corbis

photo credit: Corbis

Having scrambled to meet deadlines for most of my working life, I still can’t say whether they are my saving grace or whether they’ll be the death of me. One hears the stories of the great writers who wrote some of their best works just a step ahead of the deadline, wrapping up the week’s instalment of their serialized novel while the printer’s boy was waiting impatiently to carry the copy back to his master. In the past, deadlines lit a fire under me, when I was young, at any rate, when the pressure to produce a paper by a certain time forced me to sit down and get the job done, sometimes remarkably well, at other times as well as could be expected under the circumstances. Nowadays, however, a deadline merely heightens my anxiety without necessarily sharpening my wits. And missing a deadline—even if, as is often the case in the digital age, it is an entirely arbitrary one—takes the fizz right out of any head of steam I might have built up while under pressure.

Now that so much news content is delivered digitally on the internet, the idea of a copy deadline is rapidly becoming obsolete, for good or ill. For my part, I have reached the point where I’d rather do without deadlines. I need the sleep and most certainly don’t need the stress. Still, most institutions and workplaces, public or private, are governed by them. The best way that I have found to deal with them is to work at the given task steadily and single-mindedly while one has the energy and focus; when one’s mind begins to wander, to switch gears and do something completely different for a while; and when one’s head begins to nod, to simply call it a day and go to bed.

The Dance of Death: woodcut by Hans Holbein (Cygnet Press, 1974)

The Dance of Death: woodcut by Hans Holbein (Cygnet Press, 1974)

Life without deadlines? I don’t think there is such a thing. There will always be projects that must be wrapped up and put to bed in a timely manner. Not all deadlines are artificial ones; there are entirely natural deadlines—the first hard frost, for instance—that will always require a spurt of work to be done, often at the very last minute. To return to the printing industry, wedding invitations must be printed on time if the wedding preparations are to go according to plan; tickets must be printed in time to be sold in advance of an event; and a book’s production must be completed to schedule if it is to meet the publisher’s Spring or Fall publication dates. In the end, it’s not that, like the Federal prisoners of war, we will die if we breach the deadlines; more accurately, death is this world’s ultimate hard deadline. Perhaps we set arbitrary ones to spur us on to make greater efforts while we still can.

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  1. “Having scrambled to meet deadlines for most of my working life, I still can’t say whether they are my saving grace or whether they’ll be the death of me.” Amen to that! Though I think I wouldn’t get anything done without them.

    • Sorry I didn’t get around to replying back in April, Lorrie; I’ve only just realized. My only excuse is that the Challenge was such a daily scramble–so many deadlines, entirely self-imposed–that it was all I could do to meet them. Thanks for your visit and your comment at such a busy time.

  2. Sounds to me as though Lorrie might be your twin, Jo! You seem to actually need those deadlines in order to get anything done. Isn’t that true?
    I have heard that one should find a busy person to enlist in any important project in order to ensure that it gets done. I am imagining a spurt of endorphins whenever you are squeezed for time and then you seem to turn around and take on two more things to get done! I just watch and wonder!

    • So sorry for my four-month delay in replying, Marianne! It’s kind of you to say that I’m good at managing my projects, but I think it’s probably fairer to say that I take on too many of them and then am forced to scramble. x J

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