Editing is a difficult task with many interconnected pieces. It requires that we know and apply writing, grammar, and style principles to complex topics. And some writing professors have found that even if you have vast knowledge of grammar, syntax, and style, you can’t successfully apply that knowledge to thoroughly edit a piece of writing without help. Either you’ll get overwhelmed with too much information or you simply cannot remember enough to put the rules into practice while editing.
Research supports that notion: We can accurately retrieve about seven pieces of information from memory. The more information we try to manage, the worse we get at doing so. Editing is even trickier because it involves looking for many signs of good writing. (Editing for clarity, flow, and structure are all different tasks.) That’s why we can’t edit for every facet of good writing simultaneously: When we attempt to execute or manage more than three tasks at once, we lose both speed and accuracy. Adding distractions, interruptions, stress, and fatigue makes it worse.
Now think about how many rules you must apply and items you must check while editing. It’s daunting. We’re bound to make mistakes. A checklist can compensate for these fallibilities.
Find Your Focus and Follow Through
Checklists can improve anyone’s effectiveness at performing complex tasks. In Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, author Atul Gawande showed how checklists improved outcomes in medical, aviation, and construction fields. He proposed that checklists would help wherever “[e]xpertise is valuable but most certainly not sufficient” and the outcome is uncertain.
Legal, medical, and other professional business writing fit the bill. Writing professors agree. In the Journal of Legal Communication and Rhetoric, Professor Jennifer Romig argued that checklists would work well in legal writing. She asserted that using checklists in legal writing would improve work product and outcomes.
Checklists help us to be more systematic and disciplined in our editing processes. A good checklist can provide a strategic, measured, and methodical approach to editing. It can also help you take the writing techniques you know in theory and turn them into good writing habits.
Don’t Let Distractions Derail You
Distractions and interruptions are part of the modern business world. With open office plans and the expectation of electronic availability, it’s unlikely that you can deeply edit a document in one session.
But all is not lost. Preliminary research shows that training professionals to develop strategies for handling interruptions will help professionals better cope with those interruptions and reduce errors. One strategy is based on the Memory for Goals theory: “Memory for Goals maintains that the seconds right after the individual is made aware of the interruption — but before attention is directed to the intervening task — is an opportunity for the to-be-suspending-task to be strengthened in memory for later activation.”
The idea is that professionals can use key task markers or placeholders to remember where they were before moving to a new task. Then when they return to the initial task, they intentionally delay to reset, refocus their attention, and pick back up at those key task markers. With this approach, professionals can better recover from the interruption and resume the initial task with fewer errors.
A checklist can serve as a key task marker for editing. By working through checklists, when interruptions inevitably arise, you can use the completion of one of the tasks on the checklist as a task marker. When you return, you can refocus, review the rule you were applying, and resume editing.
Company-Wide Benefits of Checklists
Making and using checklists can also help professional teams perform better. The process of reviewing current documentation and procedures and gathering input builds team cohesion by giving each participant in the process a voice and ensuring essential steps aren’t missed.
The shared knowledge of checklist content allows professionals to mutually support each other by cross-checking what is being done and in what order. These assurances are important when competing priorities fracture our attention.
When you create your checklist, separate your editing into multiple phases. Consider critical steps you could break down into individual checklists, each involving distinct tasks and behaviors. This will help with task division and facilitate accurate completion of tasks.
Start Using Checklists Now
Business documents are increasing in complexity and getting them right is important. But it’s difficult to edit thoroughly when dealing with constant interruptions. Checklists can help.
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About the Author
Ivy B. Grey is the Director of Business Strategy for WordRake. Prior to joining the team, she practiced bankruptcy law for ten years. In 2018, Ivy was recognized as a Fastcase 50 Honoree and included in the Women of Legal Tech list by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. Follow Ivy on Twitter @IvyBGrey or connect with her on LinkedIn.