For decades, NASA has used checklists to make sure astronauts don’t leave out an essential step in the complicated process of launching a rocket or initiating a spacewalk.
Likewise, multiple studies have proven the effectiveness of the checklist in hospitals—even in processes as simple as inserting an intravenous line into a patient’s arm.
Yet I suspect few writers use checklists to strengthen the quality or accuracy of our work. I certainly have turned in my share of murky copy or made my share of reporting goofs. Is it time we start using checklists routinely to remind ourselves to do the things we think we all know?
A quick search of checklists for writers turned up mostly resources for the classroom. Elementary, one might be tempted to conclude. Helpful for high school kids, maybe, but not something a pro needs.
Still, I suspect many professionals have felt the same way as checklists came into use in other fields. An article from Australia last fall reported, “Lessons learned from the Essendon air crash: the importance of pilot checklists,” noting that the use of checklists has been “contentious.” Still, even Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his crew relied on checklists when they landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River and safely evacuated the plane.
At Johns Hopkins, doctors must have rolled their eyes at a critical care specialist’s five-point checklist whose first item was this: Wash your hands with soap. Yet in a 15-month study, the checklist prevented 43 infections and eight deaths, while saving $2 million in costs, New Yorker writer Atul Gawande reported some years ago.
“If a new drug were as effective at saving lives as [the doctor’s] checklist, there would be a nationwide marketing campaign urging doctors to use it,” the magazine said.
A later article notes that surgery deaths dropped 18 percent on average over three years in the 74 Veterans Administration hospitals where surgery team members all created checklists and discussed them in briefings before, during and after surgery. Other studies have found similar results.
Few lives are at stake for what most of us write, but I found myself reflecting on the subject since I stumbled upon a highly successful direct response writer’s copywriting checklist. Scott Martin offers an exhaustive list of points that many of us probably feel we already know (just as every doctor knows that handwashing is crucial). Yet are we making sure our copy contains all the necessary elements?
Here are a few items Martin ticks off for writers:
- Do the headlines on each page sum up the offer or benefits that will be presented?
- The paragraph following the headline relates directly to the headline, as does the body text.
- A call to action is used to get the reader to respond.
- The piece is written to the target demographic.
- Does the reader get emotionally involved from reading the message?
- Is a picture painted with words, and is the reader in that picture?
Even the student-oriented lists for essay writing offer useful reminders for us professionals. One suggests these, among other points:
- Is there a clear introduction, body, and conclusion?
- Does the introduction provide sufficient background for the reader? Are the “who,” “where,” “why,” “what,” and “how” questions addressed?
- Does the essay move from general to specific?
- Are there sufficient transitions between related ideas?
Checking for accuracy
Accuracy checklists can benefit corporate copywriters as well as reporters. Writing for CJR, Craig Silverman, author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech, makes the case for accuracy checklists, citing the New Yorker piece mentioned above.
Gawande poses an intriguing question…: “What do you do when expertise is not enough?”
Part of the answer is that you create and enforce the use of tools and processes that eliminate opportunities for error. You stop making people rely solely on experience. This is where a checklist is useful. It reminds us of the steps required to achieve the best result. It reduces the likelihood of a preventable error. Simply put, checklists work.
(Ironically, Silverman’s CJR piece includes a correction at the bottom, but let him who is without sin cast the first brickbat.)
Silverman offered his own accuracy checklist and urged reporters to adapt it or come up with their own version. His steps include the following:
- Ask sources to spell name and title.
- Record and transcribe interviews.
- Verify claims with reliable sources.
- Save links and other research.
- Ask sources what other reports got wrong.
Journalist and educator Steve Buttry also suggests asking, “How do you know that?”
Final checks before submitting:
- Numbers and math
- Titles (people, books, etc.)
- Compare quotes to notes/recording
Regarding quotes, I recommend recording interviews. Note-taking is inaccurate, as I have learned in just about every piece that quoted me over the years.
(Once, when I was a foreign correspondent in the remote Russian Far East, I told a reporter who interviewed me that when the temperatures dropped close to minus 40, my reporter wife and I tended to travel south to warmer destinations such as the Philippines in search of stories. When his piece came out, he quoted me thus: “Yeah, it’s bitterly cold during the winter—your motivation tends to go south.”)
Doing fact-checks with your source by phone will also reduce errors—and therefore might be worth adding to your checklist—even if your work will be reviewed internally by the story subject and various poohbahs.
All in all, the discussion should serve as a reminder for us all, starting with myself. I’ll be working on my checklist today.