Checklists: saving your bacon and bringing it home too (podcast)

Checklists: saving your bacon and bringing it home too (podcast)

preflight Dave Wright reviews pre-flight checklist prior to take-off NASAChecklists are the focus of this episode, in which I expand on one of my posts from the now-defunct Copyediting: explaining how checklists save your life every day, and how they can make your editing more accurate, efficient, and profitable.

Plus, another small glimpse behind the editing curtain wherein I have edited a book that made me cry — in a good way.

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Do you feel the endorphin rush when you cross something off your checklist? What goes on your editing checklist? Leave your comments below, or join the discussion over on Twitter.

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The image for this episode is by NASA of Dave Wright, used under CC BY 2.0 license.


Script for “Checklists Save Lives” episode

Another little peek behind the curtain. Writing this is how I prep for an episode. There is SO much that doesn’t fit in a typical blog post.

On this episode I revisit my column at the now-defunct Copyediting about the value of checklists.


But first, let’s peek behind the curtain again. I finished a job today — an assignment. Not my usual textbook work, nor my usual developmental or copy editing task. I did a proofread of a mass market non-fiction book: what those in the know call “trade”, I am told.

I cried.

Glad I work alone, because this was not the usual crying I do at the end of a project: from the relief of finally making it to the end; from the stress of having to makes sense of all that; from the sheer force of effort I have exerted to stay on task and gloss the manuscript with sense and order while still sounding like it wasn’t written by me. — Usually I don’t cry. Actually, crying was a bit weird. Usually I just feel triumphant, like I finally reached the peak and came out above the clouds. Proud of what I am about to submit, and looking forward to my authors’ pride when they see their name on the spine of students’ books.

No, this time I cried. Because — well, you know that feeling, at the end of a really good novel, when you’re sad that the characters are leaving your life? Yeah. A medical book made me cry. It had tone, and pacing, and voice, and character — and narrative thread.

In fact, this book was so engaging that sometimes I forgot that I was supposed to be using my Editor’s Eye and I just got so into it that … I had to back up and reread a whole bunch.

I’ll tell you more about that book after it’s published — when my non-disclosure agreement lets me. And I’ll tell you a bit about the wonderful editorial hands that I could sense at play there; and the fabulous storyteller who put the whole thing on paper. (Or is that on screen?)

But today, I want to tell you about checklists. I used them on that project, and I always feel they help. Style sheets might be seen as one long detailed checklist, but I get more literal, and actually jot a long list that I check off for each file.

Do you know Craig Silverman? He wrote a book about errors in journalism called Regret the Error. He runs a blog by that name too, and a Twitter feed — where he pokes fun at some of the more cringeworthy errors he finds in print.

A few years ago, I went to Craig’s session at the EAC conference. (That’s the Editors’ Association of Canada.) You can see the gist of his talk in a post at the Poynter institute website. (There will be a link in the show notes.) He started off like this: Who is the guy in the photo? Everyone recognized the pilot who had just landed a plane on the Hudson River with no power at all. Glided the giant Airbus right down through downtown New York and saved everyone on board.


“Who is this guy?” he then asked. Another pilot-type person? Ok. “He’s the one who read the checklist that told our hero Sully what to do.”

That’s right, checklists save lives.

If you’re a pilot, or just a fan of movies with pilots, or astronauts, then you’ll be thinking about those checklist scenes right now. Atul GawandE credits checklists as a turning point in the Second World War. He’s the guy who wrote The Checklist Manifesto — a whole book about the value of checklists. He says that when pilots started using checklists for take-off, landing and even for taxiing, there was a LARGE increase in the success of B-17 flights and bombing raids. That’s in the Second World War.

Read his New Yorker article. It’s fascinating. He says that as processes get more complicated, we can’t rely on our memory to ensure everything gets done. Atul extends that principle from flying airplanes into the operating room, and to hospital care in general. Apparently there was some pushback by doctors when this guy named Peter Pronovost tried to get checklists into doctors’ routine practice. The feeling was that using a checklist portrayed doctors and surgeons as not competent enough to perform simple routine tasks — reduced them to automatons that just read lists. Of course, we know that is not true, and thanks to Peter’s insidious “trials” at hospitals all over the US, many health professionals now live by the checkmark. And the lifesaving results have been staggering.

So there are two examples of how checkmarks can save lives: in the air, and in hospitals on the ground.

What does that mean for editing. Well, Craig Silverman? He is a journalist. He shared a checklist at that conference, one that journalists can use to make sure they have checked every fact and weak link in their writing. This is especially important for media writers; who usually have to edit their own work — you’re just too close to your own writing to remember to dial every phone number and type in every URL, check every single subject-verb agreement, and so on.

Things we editors do as a matter of course.

So, why should you use a checklist? I can think of a few times when I really lean on my checklist:

  • the project is ginormous
  • parts of the product come through in dribs and drabs, mid-way and full-way, and you have to remember to the checks you did on all the files
  • several projects are on the go, and I need to switch gears quickly and frequently
  • a file has been on my plate for so long that it all looks like a fuzzy grey block of some-kinda-text now. It helps you focus, and you can go through the file in sweeps, rather than straight from beginning to the end.
  • when a task gets too familiar, it’s easy to skip a step and not even notice. You’ve done it a million times. Did you do it this time?

You know two things I’ve added to my checklist?

  1. The title, in each place it appears: the cover, title page, copyright notice, spine, page footers. It’s something we tend to gloss over after a while. We don’t even check that it is spelled right anymore.
  2. Names. Of each and every person in the book. Why? See reason #1. My own name too, because it is always marked as a misspelling by spellcheck. It’s easy not to notice when it actually IS wrong.

The journalist’s checklist is a pretty good one. It includes some of my favourite self-checks like “read it aloud” and “display it in a new way” — that is: print it out or change the font. It also includes a note to check all corollary iterations: podcast, videos, etc. to make sure those changes are carried through.

There are even a couple lines for the journalist’s own bugaboos. Mine include the difference between practise [S] and practice [C] — which I’ve talked about before — and lose and loose. Of course, some of these problem areas I have coded into a macro that checks them for me. Like when my math writers have a penchant for typing anGEL instead of ANgle. (You can tell how often that happens: I named this podcast after that particular mistake.)

Yes, some checklists are so vital that I’ve automated them.


I hope you will leave your checklists on the site, or Tweet me at scieditor, that’s S_C_I as in science, editor. Write it down. Check it off when you’re done. There will be endorphins.

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