Elemental editorial checklists

Waaay the hell back, I posted this tribute to the dependable, indispensable checklist, and I promised to return with more posts about creating effective editorial checklists. A bunch of events and conferences and book reviews took priority, and the checklist got pushed to the back burner. So before it gets boiled dry, here’s the first of a few posts I have planned about simple editorial checklists that can save you time and, potentially, a lot of money.

In Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, a checklist expert in the aviation industry, Daniel Boorman, tells the author about the two main types of checklist:

You must decide whether you want a DO-CONFIRM checklist or a READ-DO checklist. With a DO-CONFIRM checklist… team members perform their jobs from memory and experience, often separately. But then they stop. They pause to run the checklist and confirm that everything that was supposed to be done was done. With a READ-DO checklist, on the other hand, people carry out the tasks as they check them off. (pp. 122–23)

That distinction may work well for checklists designed for large teams of people performing complex tasks, but for editing and publishing, I find a different kind of division more practical: most editorial checklists will be either elemental or procedural, and it’s the former I’ll talk about here, because it’s the easiest to get started with.

Whereas procedural checklists give you a series of tasks to perform, elemental checklists tell you what elements to include. Publishers will find them useful for all of the constants across their publications; for example, cover copy on all of a trade publisher’s books will have the same components, the chapters within a textbook will have the same structure, and a market research firm’s reports will typically include the same sections each time.

Elemental checklists serve multiple functions:

  1. The person who first drafts the copy can use them to make sure he or she has covered all bases.
  2. The editor, designer, and proofreader—not to mention the person who checks the printer’s proofs—can use them to double, triple, and quadruple check that nothing critical has been left out or, in a more likely scenario, dropped out from one stage of production to the next.
  3. They are a powerful, authoritative training tool for new editorial and production staff members, as well as freelancers.

That third function underscores why you would bother creating elemental checklists. When I first started out in trade publishing and had to write cover copy for the first time, I was told to look at another of the publisher’s books as a guide, yet I wasn’t sure if the book I had chosen was representative. Having a checklist would have saved me some second guessing. And if I had been a freelancer, I might not have had access to the publisher’s backlist from which to choose a sample.

Even for seasoned veterans in house, these checklists are invaluable. We’d all like to believe that once we’ve worked somewhere long enough, we’ll have internalized all of the details, such as what goes on a title page. But with everything that an editor has to do, having a reminder in the form of a checklist—”a kind of cognitive net [that] catch mental flaws inherent in all of us” as Gawande says (p. 47)—is extremely helpful. A checklist frees your mind from having to remember these details and allows you to focus your task.

And those “mental flaws” Gawande mentions can be costly to publishers. Forgetting to include the company URL on the back cover copy may not be a huge problem, but inadvertently dropping an acknowledgement clause could get your funding pulled, and missing a disclaimer could have legal repercussions. Every publisher has a war story about having a book rejacketed at the eleventh hour (or worse, pulped and reprinted) because it had left off a copublisher’s imprint information or having to get a shipment of books stickered because the barcode was missing.

For recurring items that use boilerplate text—for example, the copyright page, with its standard copyright and acknowledgement clauses—using a template rather than a checklist would save you a lot of rekeying, but the principle is the same: the template, like a checklist, ensures that the essential elements aren’t inadvertently omitted owing to a lapse of memory.

Developing elemental checklists is simple:

Suggestions for publishers

1. Pull out some representative publications

If you publish multiple genres or multiple formats, it’s helpful to have one of each in front of you.

2. Identify all of the constants

Some examples, for trade books, are the half-title page, title page, and all parts of a jacket (e.g., front flap, front cover, spine, back cover, back flap). Textbook chapters will often have recurring elements, structured in the same way (for example, introduction, lab activities, career profile, chapter summary, glossary), and each of those elements may in turn have a recurring structure (e.g., activity title, list of equipment, numbered method, analysis questions), so be sure to consider constants at both a macro and a micro level.

3. Identify required components and optional components

For example, a trade book’s front cover must have the title, subtitle, and author’s name, and it may have a short endorsement quote. (If you’re thinking, “Well, surely we don’t need a list for three items,” let me assure you that, yes, there have been publishers that have forgotten to include an author’s name on the front cover.)

4. Create generic elemental lists that apply to all of your publications

Start with broad lists that everyone will use, then…

5. Devise genre-specific sublists if necessary

For example, you may wish to have a disclaimer on all of your medically themed books or ensure that you include a co-publisher’s logo on the title page of co-published titles.

6. Share the checklists with all team members, including freelancers

Better yet, make them available for browsing or searching on an online tool like an editorial wiki.

7. Periodically revisit and revise your checklists

All checklists should be regularly revised for relevance, although elemental checklists generally tend to change less frequently than procedural checklists do. Still, those of us in publishing who saw the transition from 10- to 13-digit ISBNs, for example, will recall how much even small details matter to workflow. Make sure team members are aware of any changes. (An easy approach is to use an editorial wiki as the authoritative central repository for this kind of information. Editors and designers will always know that the material on the wiki is the most up to date.)

Suggestions for freelancers

Request checklists

If your publisher clients don’t voluntarily offer checklists, ask for them. If your clients don’t have checklists at all, your enquiry may well prompt them to think about developing some.

One thought on “Elemental editorial checklists”

  1. If you want to set-up repeatable checklists you can use this application:


    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, and a calendar.
    Syncs with Evernote and Google Calendar, and also comes with mobile version, and Android and iPhone apps.

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