Lists: The Editor’s Essential Tools

Editors make lists. Good editors make lots of lists and refer to them constantly. Two kinds of lists are essential: the style sheet and the checklist.

The style sheet lists choices that have been made for a given project—preferred terms and their preferred spelling, when to spell out numbers, documentation style, and so on. Even if the organization has a house style guide, many editors like to summarize the major points in the style sheet for quick reference. As a manuscript makes its way through the editorial process, passed from one desk to another, the style sheet grows as each editor records decisions to help maintain consistency and save time.

… there is nothing more wonderful than a list …”
― Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

Checklists are shorter-lived documents that each editor uses to ensure they catch everything that needs their attention. Copyeditors and proofreaders are especially devoted to checklists, as their work depends on careful scrutiny of repeated, often mechanical details. For example, my checklist for copyediting tables makes sure that I look at every part of each table and reminds me to number the table correctly, to capitalize and punctuate consistently, to check the math if there are numbers, and so on. Over the years, I’ve developed checklist templates that I adapt as needed for each document I work on.

When I begin a new project, there’s eager anticipation as I print the blank checklists; as I work, the lists help me to plan each day, focus on each task, and relax; and as I wind up the project, there’s satisfaction in looking through completed checklists with a sense of accomplishment, knowing that I’ve done a thorough job.