The power of the humble checklist

I’m a bit of a checklist junkie. There’s something (neurotically) satisfying about checking off a list item—as if it proves I’ve accomplished something. Mostly, though, I use checklists because I would be lost without them; there are just too many details in my work (and my life) for my brain to handle on its own, and without a set of robust systems, some are bound to slip through the cracks.

So it’s with some shame that I admit I only recently got around to reading Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. The bestselling author and surgeon shows how a simple checklist—modelled on the ones that have been standard in the aviation industry for decades and applied to fields as diverse as medicine and investment banking—can improve communication, foster teamwork, and, in many cases, save lives.

As Gawande says, “Checklists seem able to defend anyone, even the experienced, against failure in many more tasks than we realized. They provide a kind of cognitive net. They catch mental flaws inherent in all of us—flaws of memory and attention and thoroughness. And because they do, they raise wide, unexpected possibilities.” (p. 47)

Fortunately for me, lives generally aren’t at stake in my line of work, but editorial checklists can nevertheless be extremely powerful tools. When consistency is key, as it is in copy editing and proofreading, and when the major objective is to eliminate as many errors as possible, checklists are invaluable.

Checklists are especially useful for keeping track of the more mechanical or repetitive tasks that require little creative thought—such as those that appear more and more frequently as editors are increasingly expected to work on screen and generate final electronic files meeting certain formatting specifications. Checklists free your mind from having to store those kinds of minutiae, allowing you to focus on the task of editing itself. In the words of one of Gawande’s interviewees, an investment specialist who didn’t want to be identified, those who use checklists “increase their outcomes without any increase in skill.” (p. 168)

What I appreciate most about checklists, though, is that they allow you to learn from your mistakes. If checklists are used throughout an organization, they allow you to learn from everyone’s mistakes—and so it’s easy to see how they can quickly become an essential part of not only institutional memory but institutional wisdom.

However, as Gawande has observed, “the opportunity is evident in many fields—and so also is the resistance” (p. 162). Developing good checklists is a pillar of my consulting work on editorial process, but I often have to rally hard for buy-in. One editor felt that expecting her to fill out a checklist was patronizing. Another was concerned about how much time it would add to her work.

Checklists, when used properly, should support your editors. Although asking them to fill out a checklist is, in effect, demanding more accountability of them, doing so should also promote an editor’s ownership of a project. Using a checklist as an enforcement tool, though often tempting, is missing the point.

Going through an editorial checklist may initially add a bit of time to the workflow, but eventually, everyone involved in the editorial process learns to fold the checklists into his or her work. Checklists almost always save time when you consider the editorial and production process from start to finish, and they can save money. Checking the headers and footers may cost you ten minutes, but forgetting to check them could cost the price of a reprint or even a client.

The Checklist Manifesto touches on some features of good versus bad checklists, which are illuminating, though not necessarily applicable to editing in some cases. Aspects of editing that a checklist can help, as well as building effective editorial checklists, will be topics for a future post.

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