Personal editorial checklists

I’ve written at length—some would argue ad nauseam—about the utility of editorial checklists, but until now I’ve focused mainly on checklists that publishers can use for communication and quality control. Just as powerful are personal checklists that any editor, freelance or in-house, can develop for him- or herself. Obvious items to include on such a list are actions that you have to take with every document, regardless of source or genre: running a spell check, eliminating double spaces, and so on. The real power of the personal checklist, however, lies in its ability to cover up your editorial Achilles’ heel.

We all have one (or several). If you’re lucky, you’re aware of it but may still feel powerless to do much about it. Editorial Achilles’ heels are those troublesome little problems that, for whatever reason, your brain just can’t seem to figure out. They’re usually relatively minor grammatical, usage, or spelling issues, but on full display they can really put a dent in your credibility as an editor.

For me, the word “embarrass” was problematic for the longest time—I never could remember how many r’s it had, no matter how many times I read, wrote, or typed it. Spell check was my saviour in that case, but it was no help for another of my weaknesses: I would routinely miss when an author wrote “grizzly” when she meant “grisly.” I think the first time I heard a news anchor say “grisly,” I had no problem imagining a gruesome crime scene being akin to the aftermath of a bloody bear mauling. The synapse formed, and it stubbornly would not let go.

Having identified that weakness, the solution was straightforward: on my personal checklist, I added “Search for ‘grizzly.’ ” The error didn’t come up that often, but that quick check saved me from embarrassment more than once.

At Ruth Wilson’s EAC-BC talk about style sheets this past spring, she emphatically discouraged editors from using style sheets to document these kinds of editorial weaknesses. “You don’t want to display your ignorance,” she said, noting that style sheets are a part of your communication with the author and other members of the editorial and design team. The beauty of personal checklists, in contrast, is that nobody has to know about them, and they can include as many items as you need. Of course, as with all truly useful checklists, personal editorial checklists should be written down; mental checklists are just as fallible as the mind that owns them.

The best part of keeping a personal editorial checklist, though, is the moment when you’ve finally beaten that errant synapse into submission and no longer need a written reminder. Sure, it’s a tiny victory, but for an editor who has finally learned the proper way to spell “embarrass” after however many decades, being able to take an item off the checklist for good is still worthy of a small celebration.

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.

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.

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.