As I said in my description for this session, this is an old school hack, a paper checklist, and you can use it for a variety of writing and editing tasks. I’ve got a lot to cover, so let’s get started.
Just to give you an idea of what we’ll cover in this short session…
I’ll provide an introduction to the types of checklists I use and some of my research into checklists for work tasks
I’ll offer some suggestions for the types of tasks that benefit the most from checklists
I’ll talk about the elements of a good checklist according to me for the way I use them to be more productive and consistent in my writing and editing tasks
I will preach the benefits of a good checklist, again, according to me, and the way that I use them
I’ll answer the question, How you do you know you have good checklists?
Then, if we have time, I welcome questions about how you can become a checklist specialist or testimonials about the joys and life-saving properties of checklists for those who already consider themselves checklist specialists.
Lots of people like checklists.
They have TO DO lists for daily tasks, packing lists for travel. Atul Gawande wrote a whole book on how checklists are used in a variety of industries to save lives, fly planes, and manage large-scale constructions projects.
I highly recommend this book; I have a resources slide with this and a couple of other resources on it.
A couple of takeaways from this book that I want to offer up for you up front
Mental fatigue is real….Gawande talks about this, but it also came up in another book I have in the resources, “It takes mental work to keep things filed and stored and organized in your brain. And I think we underestimate how taxing it is to think.” From a psychotherapist and psychiatrist. Do you want to spend your brain energy trying to remember something silly? Or using it to analyze data or rewrite a tough concept?
If you could be more efficient and productive, produce better quality work with less energy and feel better about it, why wouldn’t you? Gawande talks about how people think using a checklist is beneath them, they are too smart for that, they don’t need it. Maybe you don’t need it on your good days, when you’ve gotten enough sleep, have no interruptions, and are in a great mood, but what about those days when one of those things, or all of those things are off? The checklist is there for you, to make you be your better self, every day.
I am a self-proclaimed checklist specialist, and I have the cards to prove it!
I specialize in checklists for writing and editing tasks, just the type of stuff we do because I have experienced the benefits of a good checklist first hand and with the team I used to manage. But I have some particular requirements for good checklists, and I have listed some of them here….
First of all, these checklists are for you to use, so I can’t tell you what they should look like, and your boss shouldn’t be creating them for you, you need to create them for you. For teams, you can create one for the team if there is a task you all do and you need to be consistent in how you do them, but you have to work on the checklists together so they work for all of you. A checklist shouldn’t be punitive or a necessary evil…it’s a tool in your toolbox to do your job better, with less strife and more peace of mind.
You should be updating them and changing them as you job or the task changes, unless of course, you work never changes….but I don’t know anyone who has been able to do the same job the same way for years…there is always a new system, or a new task, or you learn that you were doing something wrong that you want to correct. There is always change….
Generally, you can create them for editing tasks, which is what I was using them for initially and where I have a lot of experience with them, but you can use them for writing tasks, or publication tasks, or social media work. For example, if you have certain types of documents, you edit or write, or if you create and publish social media content…any type of repeated task is a good candidate for a checklist. Let’s talk more about the types of tasks…
In my experience, tasks that are similar and repeated regularly are good candidates for a checklist.
For instance, as a medical editor, I would edit standard responses every day. I had to access the docs in systems that changed over the 8 years I worked there…we used 3 or 4 different systems, and there would be always be updates or changes to the processes or systems. Documenting the steps in the checklists helped me remember the latest process and requirements and perform the steps more efficiently without second-guessing myself.
The checklist also documented current style and formatting details, so I could be sure I was up to date with the latest style guide, something else that was always changing and evolving. Checking items off the checklist as I went along allowed me to start and stop an editing task without forgetting where I was and losing time duplicating my efforts.
So let’s get into the elements of a good checklist…forget what you’ve seen in editing or writing textbooks that are helping newbies learn what technical writing or editing are…most of you are professionals and need better tools.
I’ve seen many checklists that are generic, Check the headings. When you’re editing multiple clients with different styles with a tight deadline, this isn’t helpful. Notate and show what the headings should look like, so you know at a glance how they should look.
If you have multiple clients for similar types of documents, as I do, you will get confused about which client needs which header or which abbreviation they use. You will forget if you checked that item for this document or the other one…I am telling you this from experience.
Don’t just assume that you’ll remember all the steps in the process of the tasks, or the exact style items, write it all down.
And be sure to group like activities together when possible on your checklist….the goal is efficiency, so grouping all your find and replace tasks together, for example, is more efficient and when you clean up your document , you can focus on more important details.
Similar to the previous slide, spell everything out…step by step, like a procedure for yourself.
Are there items you are afraid you will forget, or that you have forgotten when doing a task in the past? Write it down. The checklist is there for you.
This is one I struggle with…there are a lot of steps to publicizing an event, and I only do it once a month for the chapter…but some things have to be done in a specific order, like you can’t include a link to the event if it is not created in EventBrite first, and for other things, it helps if you do it in a specific order, like writing the LinkedIn post, which can be longer, then stealing text from it to post to Twitter, which has shorter character limits. And how do you keep track of the character limits or the image requirements of the different platforms. You can put that all on a checklist, so you don’t forget.
You can also use the sheet to track little details specific to a task in case there are things that cropped up that were not on the checklist. I find this sometimes with new therapeutic area or products for the pharmaceutical editing I do. I have some common terms in the checklist and many more in the style guide, but with a new product or indication for a product, there may be a word I have never seen before, and if I go to the trouble of looking it up in a reference to find out what’s the proper way to use the word, and then I run across it again, I can go back to my last checklist for that product or indication and find out what I did last time.
Keeping your checklists up to date can be a challenge, but it will be there when you need it.
Expanding on the need for step-by-step actions…
This is not a one and done. Sure, you can brainstorm what needs to be done for a particular task, but don’t call that a checklist. Get it all down on paper, rearrange it until it seems to make sense. Then test it with a real task, and edit it as you go. When you are done with the task, update the checklist, print it out and test it again. You are not stuck with your original sequence of steps…try something new if some of the steps don’t seem to be working. Test it ,update it, then test it again.
Writing all of the steps down is where you get the productivity benefits of a checklist…anyone ever get interrupted in the middle of a task? Oh, me neither, but if you did, and you had it marked on the checklist where you stopped, then you would know where to start back up again, without having to think about, oh, where was I? Did I do this step yet? Have you ever forgotten something because you thought you had done it? Have you ever starting doing something to a document, like checking the headings or finding an abbreviation that’s often spelled wrong, then realized, wait I already did this.? Again, this is where the checklist helps.
Length of document
Author, team, or topic
When you use paper checklists and keep them, they allow you to more easily remember what was going on with a particular tasks if asked about it later. And if you didn’t have time to check or do everything in your checklist, you will have a note of it and your tracking information may show why (rush, long document, troublesome author).
So let’s get back to the point of the talk….how do checklists make you more productive? How do they make you more consistent? I’ve touched on it throughout, but I’ll try to be more explicit.
I think that using an updated, detailed checklist for a particular task makes me more productive because it keeps me on task, allows me to stop and start back up with less loss of focus and certainly less worry, and it allows me to track metrics and accurately estimate future projects. It’s a nice motivational tool, too. You get to see your progress as you go, and if you do have good metrics, you’ll be able to better estimate how much longer the task will take.
Going through the process of establishing what needs to be done, organizing my tasks for optimal efficiency, and being able to follow a set list of items that I check off as I go allowed me to be more consistent in my editing, writing, and publication-type tasks. As an editor, especially, this ability to be consistent has been invaluable, but I think it’s helpful for lots of other tasks.
Because I have a lot to do in a short amount of time, because I value quality and consistency in the materials I edit and write, I like knowing I have done my best and the checklist documents all of that.
The title of my talk doesn’t mention “peace of mind” but picking up where you left off with confidence is sometimes priceless. There are always interruptions, distractions, “Off days.”
I’m an experienced professional. I know what to do when I get a project. But as an experienced professional, who is good at what I do, like many of you, I also end up with a lot of projects. In my last position, I had many different types of projects, different clients, different systems, different types of work. Having a checklist for many of the tasks helped me keep them all straight and know where I am with any of them at any one time.
Have you ever had a project or document drag on until you were sick of it? You just want it off your plate…how do you know if you have done enough? Sometimes checklist can help you know you have done enough, that it’s ready to move off your plate.
The first one has happened to me more times that I care to mention…you get caught up in a messy document and there is so much to fix that you forget to check something. Sometimes, it is something small, but other times, it’s important, like misspelling the product name or headings with typos.
The second one has happened, and I have people here to prove it, who have caught it for me, because I was not using a checklist and just shooting from the hip.
As I am growing my freelance business, the metrics have become really important. I have the metrics from when I edited a certain type of document for multiple clients where I used to work, and now I am gathering them for new clients who want to know, well, how much is this going to cost me or how long will this take.
I will also post this to Slide Share and if you look at my Slide Share page, you’ll see an infographic, How to Create an Editing Checklist that might be helpful. They’ll both be on my website at some point as well.
Thank you everyone for attending. Feel free to contact me with questions…I’m pretty accessible. I also have some business cards up here….