Procedural editorial checklists—and where they fit in

It occurred to me a while ago that in my eagerness to tout checklists, I neglected to give a broader picture of the framework into which they should fit. So let me push the reset button and start at the beginning.

Any organization that produces publications—whether they’re reports or magazines or books—should supply its editorial team members with three essential kinds of documents:

1) Editorial guidelines

These should not only define house style but also offer an overview of workflow, as well as such details as manuscript formatting and image specification requirements.

2) Editorial checklists

Guidelines can balloon over time to encyclopedic documents, and trainees and freelancers may find it challenging to identify the most important points. Use checklists to distill guidelines to the essentials. Checklists reinforce procedure, clearly define roles, and help editors prioritize their tasks. They ensure that production team members who follow an editor on a project have the material they need to do their jobs.

3) Transmittal sheets

A substantive editor and copy editor working on the same project may never have direct interaction with one another. Particularly conscientious editors will write a memo to the copy editor or designer, but many editors don’t. Transmittal sheets are a way of ensuring that critical communication about the project takes place. In essence, they give production team members who follow an editor on a project the information they need to do their jobs.

Editorial guidelines are fairly standard. That’s not to imply that all organizations that should have them do, but at least most publishers understand what they are and how they function. Transmittal sheets are relatively simple documents, and I’d be happy to write more about them in a later post if there’s enough interest. For now, I’ll bring my focus back to the checklist, and since I’ve already devoted a post to elemental editorial checklists, I’ll concentrate here on procedural checklists based on role. Copy-editing checklists, proofreading checklists, indexing checklists, and the like are all great training tools, because they explicitly codify procedure. Running through a checklist will quickly bring a person up to speed on how things are done and what tasks are most important.

Publishers should aim to have checklists for each stage of production. In particular, a team member should have to run through a checklist for every hand-off—so a copy editor would have one checklist before the hand-off to the author and one before the hand-off to the designer, for example.

Creating these checklists takes some commitment, but in the end (and even in the process, as I mention below) they can prove to be money and time savers. Here are some suggestions on how to get started:

Write down what you already do and know

Chances are each member of your editorial team already has a regimen of tasks that he or she performs—a mental checklist—for all projects. The first step is to commit that checklist to type and for staff members who perform the same function—all copy editors, say—to compare notes. Odds are high that these mental checklists are based on past mistakes that have changed the way you operate (like that time the title on the spine didn’t match the title on the front cover, for example). Getting this information out of your brain and onto a draft checklist, then conferring with your colleagues, allows everyone to learn from one another’s mistakes.

Consult external sources

The Chicago Manual of Style has an overview of publication production (Chapter 2), and the Editors’ Association of Canada’s Professional Editorial Standards define the basic tasks involved in structural editing, stylistic editing, copy editing, and proofreading. These are just a couple of external sources you may want to look at as you further develop your checklists. Although your workflow and division of responsibilities may not correspond to these references exactly, reading through them may give you ideas about streamlining your processes. Creating these checklists provides a fantastic impetus to do an informal audit of your production operations, during which you may discover better ways of getting things done.

Compare your checklist against your guidelines

These should correspond exactly; items that contradict only cause confusion and waste time. Don’t be afraid to change the guidelines to accommodate approaches you may have discovered in the previous step to achieve a more efficient workflow. If you’ve got your guidelines posted on a central online repository, making adjustments and, while you’re at it, getting rid of what Arnold Zwicky (and later Amy Einsohn, in Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text) calls “zombie rules” are simple.

Refine and revise

Use the checklist in a project and see what kinds of adjustments need to be made. The odds of producing a perfect checklist (whatever that means) on the first try are slim; it may take a few iterations before your checklist and workflow conform to one another. If you use freelancers, do a few runs of the checklist in house before releasing it to them so that you’ve worked out most of the bugs. And, of course, every time the editorial guidelines are changed, the checklists should be reviewed, and vice versa.

For freelancers

Since not all clients will have a system of checklists in place, get into the habit of making your own. I have a checklist for each of my regular clients, based on generic checklists for each type of publication I work on. If you’ve developed long-standing relationships with some of your clients, consider sharing your checklists with them. They may form the basis for a more substantial framework of production efficiencies that will not only make your job easier but also help other production team members.

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