How to Avoid Disaster with an Editorial Checklist

One of the most effective quality-control and disaster-prevention tools ever developed is also one of the simplest: the checklist. Surgeons use checklists. Astronauts use checklists. Stage managers use checklists. And editors use checklists.

Unfortunately, a checklist can also be one of the most tedious things ever. And if that tedium causes you to rush through it and not thoroughly check every item, then goodbye effectiveness!

Because of this, checklists walk a fine line between checking too darn many things and missing important things. Here’s how to build one that’s right for you.

Why Do You Need a Checklist?

Why are checklists effective? For about the same reason we use egg cartons rather than juggling the eggs as we walk home from the store: If you have to keep too many things in the air – meaning, in this case, in your mind – you’re going to end up with a mess. Set everything down in order and you can be confident of not letting something drop.

There are many things editors can use a checklist on. For example:

  • Is the article using the proper keywords?
  • Does it have a final approved title?
  • Have you confirmed the source and credit for each photo and illustration?
  • If it’s a book, are the forematter and end matter elements all present in the correct order?

And, of course, mechanical details such as formatting and preferred spelling are another thing to make sure of. Effectively, your style sheet becomes a checklist that you should go through as a final check to make sure you’ve handled everything consistently. You may think you caught all the deviations from it in the read-through, but would you bet your job on it?

Why Can’t You Use Someone Else’s Checklist?

There are many checklists already out there on various websites. They all have two important things in common:

  • You can get ideas from them for what to use – and what not to use – on your own checklists.
  • You should not just copy one of them and use it as is.

You may have heard the aphorism “Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes. (That way, when you criticize them, they’ll be a mile away and you’ll have their shoes.)” Well, before you use their checklist, just think about what it would be like to walk a mile in their shoes. Literally. Their actual leather shoes that they’ve worn every day for years. They won’t be worn in for your feet, will they? They probably won’t even be the right size.

The same is true with checklists. Other people may have similar priorities to yours, but they won’t have exactly the same problems. They won’t have the same branding and client names to check, for instance. Their content may be structured differently and serve different readerships. They will have different editorial processes, different corporate approval chains, different personalities involved. And beyond all that, they may actually not be very good at making checklists. Just because it’s on the web doesn’t mean it’s well made! So borrow and adapt as you see fit, but make it your own.

What Should You Put on a Checklist?

What should a good checklist cover? In two words: YOUR BUTT.

What that means is that a checklist should, methodically, accurately, reliably, go through every checkable thing that has a real chance of coming up that could cause you and/or your company embarrassment or could expose you and/or your clients to legal or physical jeopardy. Let’s break that down:

  • Methodically means one by one in a reasonable order, not jumping around from one kind of thing to another. Check all page layout elements together, and all spelling together, and if changes to the spelling can reflow the text, check the spelling before the layout.
  • Accurately means that you’re not asking for fuzzy judgment calls. “Is the logo the right shade of red?” is not good enough. “Is the logo in Pantone CVU 186?” is, as long as the person has the means of verifying it.
  • Reliably means not just some of the time. If you’re checking for an error in the spelling of a name, and you’re using a global search to do it, make sure you include every plausible misspelling – and that you check all instances one by one so you don’t accidentally change the wrong thing (for instance, from “flickering lights” to “Flickring lights”).
  • Checkable means it has to be something you can actually verify in some realistic way. “Is the wordmark in Goudy Old Style bold, Pantone CVU 186?” is verifiable. “Is it interesting?” is too vague and too dependent on the reader and the situation.
  • Has a real chance of coming up means every embarrassing thing that has already come up in your experience, plus anything of equal or greater likelihood. It does not mean things that, while they would be big problems, are far-fetched. Checking text to make sure none of it is “lorem ipsum” placeholder is valuable in a new layout or new website; checking it to make sure it’s not copied and pasted from classic novels is a waste of time.

Checklists can be long. And they can be boring and tedious. Even just checking every specific term on your style sheet one by one using Word’s global search could take an hour or more, and it requires your full attention – you can’t tune out and watch YouTube videos. But it’s still an important task. If you don’t get every detail right, proposals may be lost or articles rejected. However, there is a way to cut the size of your checklist, cut the amount of manual labor, and actually increase the accuracy of your checks. Here’s how it works.

Shorter Checklists with Better Accuracy

You can build editing checklists into PerfectIt. It checks them faster and more reliably than you ever could by hand. And it leaves you in control of every editing decision. What could have been an hour or two of checking can be zipped through in a few minutes. Here are just some of the things PerfectIt can check for you:

  • Spelling preferences: PerfectIt will check spellings according to your style sheet. This includes any industry- or company-specific terms and client names that you want to add to it.
  • Sensitivity: PerfectIt can be set to look for terms that are biased or problematic with regard to sensitive areas such as gender and ethnicity.
  • Quality review: Some people love using insider or technical terms. Sometimes they love using them so much they use them where they don’t belong. PerfectIt can highlight terms and their meanings to make sure they’re being used appropriately.
  • Consistency of writing: The number one sin in writing and editing is inconsistency. PerfectIt checks hyphenation, capitalization, and spelling consistency.
  • Abbreviations and their definitions: PerfectIt checks whether you’ve defined abbreviations, and it checks whether you’ve actually used each abbreviation you’ve defined.

PerfectIt isn’t doing your thinking for you; it’s going down a checklist and asking you only about deviations, making it easy for you to apply your judgment as needed. The result is that you can have a smaller, more manageable list of things to check by hand, so you save time, and your work is more accurate than it ever could be otherwise.

The Easier Way to Avoid Disaster

A good checklist is an important tool for quality control. Making a good checklist may be time consuming, but it means that your documents will be as tidy and nice as possible and you will avoid disaster. So the effort is worth it.

You can make your checklist easier to go through and enforce with PerfectIt. It speeds up a lot of the most fussy, tedious, but still vitally important work. You’ll dramatically improve your efficiency and your effectiveness, and at the same time you’ll dramatically reduce your incidence of boredom. Once you have PerfectIt set up with your style sheet, you’ll have more time and attention for other elements, such as layout, URLs, photo credits, and the more ineffable parts of editorial judgment. Click to try PerfectIt for free.

Check your editorial checklist automatically with PerfectIt