Editing Strategies: Checklists

Checklists help ensure all elements are in place.

Every now and then, someone asks me if there is a method to my editing. Do I go from “big picture” to “minutia,” for example.

No. It’s not usually that orderly. There is a lot of art to editing. Especially at the start of a project, I just read it, changing or making notes as I go.

However, when I’m well into a project, the editing needs become clearer – the problem spots more apparent – or the elements to check get longer, out comes my checklist.*

Copy editing and proofreading are a lot more amenable to systems than structural editing is.

Below is my checklist from proofing pages on a recent project. (That means the final stages, with laid out pages, before it goes to print.) I do them in whatever order strikes me. When I get worn out, I shake it up by changing the order. I’m just that wild.

On-the-fly checklist jotted as I noticed problems in the file caused by obsfucation by tracked changes.
This is a checklist I jotted on-the-fly as I noticed problems in the file caused by obsfucation due to tracked changes.
  • changes implemented as marked
  • inserts correct
  • page heads
  • page footers — sequential #, ISBN, section name
  • title (front page and internal mentions)
  • ISBN
  • internal page refs
  • internal names refs
  • sequential numbering in all lists
  • headers
  • images — correct, full, legible
  • chemical formulas — subscripts
  • names
  • following paragraphs are indented
  • chapter and activity names
  • ph # — correct # of digits

When I first see pages all laid out, I also check

  • first and last words of each paragraph
  • images are picked up and placed correctly

When I am developing a manuscript with an author, the checklist is shorter and less detailed. The list below includes big picture elements that I consider as I work:

  • goal of the piece or passage (in educational publishing, where I do most of my work, this means the learning outcomes)
  • reading level
  • word count (for copy fitting)
  • clarity
  • voice (which should sound unified in multi-author projects)
  • image possibilities
  • technical terms and chemical names/formulas
  • peoples’ names
  • topic sentences
  • and all that grammar and other editory stuff

What method to you use?


*Big nod to Craig Silverman of Regret the Error here, and also the Checklist Manifesto. Craig and Atul make a mean argument for the power of checklists in avoiding error. Basically, he justified my checklist obsession. I’m not crazy. I’m not! <check>


See the updated and expanded post about checklists, and in audio podcast form too.

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