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.

5 Responses to Personal editorial checklists

  1. Excellent advice. I too use a personal checklist of words I commonly mix up or that I might pass over. This includes words that would pass the spellcheck but are definitely not intended: bare for bear, angel for angle, and pubic for public. I dream of a way to eliminate embarrassing homonyms from my spellchecker, so they would always be underlined.

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