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The power of systematic checklists: Saving time, uncovering Easter eggs, and preventing overload

It’s 8:30 a.m.

Time to refill my mug of tea, revive my computer, and work on the ol’ textbook. I know I have a lot to do, but I feel good … at first. Then I catch a glimpse of my bloated task list and I’m immediately discouraged.

Let’s see. I still haven’t finished the manuscript for the sixth and final unit. The copyeditor is already sending batches of early chapters for my approval, the artists need corrections on drafts of new figures, the designer wants a decision on the cover photo, and a professor who uses my current edition wants more coverage of tardigrades. Oh, I almost forgot to mention that I also have classes to teach, meetings to attend, and personal responsibilities that I can’t abandon. Suddenly, I’m in a tizzy.

With so many different things happening at once, it’s hard to meet my goals as an author: to produce a beautiful and error-free book, be a good team player, meet all my commitments, and enjoy a little time to myself. What should I do?

In this situation, my first move is always to find out when each person needs my reply: Yesterday? Tomorrow? In a couple of weeks? Armed with that information, I may be able to handle everything by tackling the tasks in the order they’re due. If it’s still too much, I’ll ask the project manager for priorities. Then I can attend to the most urgent tasks first, minimizing disruption to the production schedule.

In writing a textbook, being clear on priorities is important, but my best survival strategy is even more mundane: a series of intricately detailed checklists. Each chapter (plus front matter and end matter) has a separate checklist for the first draft, copyedited manuscript, first pass pages, revised pages, and confirming pages. These Word documents include every task required to complete that stage of manuscript development and production.

When I say “every task,” I mean it. My first draft checklist has 80 or so detailed items, including: “Copy reviewer comments to chapter PDF;” “Write draft for the new end-of-chapter feature;” “Look for ways to reduce gender-limited language;” “Make sure every photo has scale bar;” “Email editor at end of unit.” You can view an example of one of my checklists.

The main motivation for creating these checklists many years ago was to ensure that my assistant and I never overlook any task, no matter how overwhelmed we get. But these checklists are huge time-savers in three important ways:

1) Maintaining detailed checklists for every stage of textbook production means that we can always be productive, no matter how much time we have available. Some tasks, like writing new content, require medium- to long blocks of uninterrupted time. Others, like making sure every photo in a chapter has a scale bar, take just a minute or two. I can set aside blocks for big tasks and squeeze tiny jobs into the small cracks between meetings. Either way, marking any item as DONE is satisfying because it means we’ve taken a step toward the overall goal.

2) Checklists come in handy when I discover an error or have a brilliant new idea but can’t make changes right away because the chapter is in someone else’s hands. The top of the chapter’s most recent checklist is reserved for these comments and ideas. I write them in red and add yellow highlighting so I don’t overlook them the next time I have the chapter. Having a consistent strategy for retaining notes means that I don’t have to store them in my brain (impossible) or bury them in a mountain of loose scrap paper (untidy and inefficient).

3) One of the items on the first draft checklist is to list all major changes to the chapter. While toiling away on the book, it’s hard to imagine that I could ever forget how we improved it, but … I will forget. Listing the major changes as I work makes it easy to write the changes-by-chapter section of the front matter. (Even if your book doesn’t include a section like that, your book’s users may want an overview of how your book changed from the last edition. Writing that list as you go is a huge time-saver.)

We carry over our set of checklists across two titles and multiple editions, with modifications each time. These adjustments are important because they reflect our accumulated knowledge of the many ways that errors can creep into a book: The edge of a piece of art can be cut off, a word that should be italicized may not be, the running head can be wrong, and so on. We call these hard-to-spot errors “Easter eggs” and pretend they were hidden there on purpose, just to see if we’d notice. Each time we learn about a new type of Easter egg, we add it to the checklist as something to hunt for.

I could go on and on about how much we rely on our shared set of checklists. Suffice it to say that being systematic gives me peace of mind that we are doing all we can to make the book clean and beautiful. What’s more, checking off even tiny a task always gives me a satisfying boost. Best of all: We can kiss the tizzy goodbye.

Marielle Hoefnagels is a professor at the University of Oklahoma. She has been a textbook author for about 20 years and currently has two general biology textbooks, both published by McGraw-Hill.