The Checklist Manifesto, Writing, and Resilience

27 Dec 2011

I just finished Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto, and as a writer, I am thinking about ways of applying the checklist approach to my writing.

Gawande is a prolific writer, somehow finding the time alongside his surgeries and research to write excellent articles for the New Yorker and three books over the past several years.

Oddly, though, he never even mentions the idea of applying his checklist approach to writing. He does talk about how many professionals feel that their particular speciality isn’t amenable to checklists because it requires too much intuition or quick thinking or creatively or inspiration or whatever other kind of quality you might think of that seems not amenable to taming with a checklist. Of all professions, writers might be the most prone to this kind of thinking.

That thinking is, in many ways, exactly right—and exactly why checklists are so crucial, Gawande argues. The checklist is to make sure you’ve ticked all the boxes for the numerous relatively easy-to-do things, freeing up your mind to deal with the really tough stuff. (In that way, it seems similar to Getting Things Done, with its emphasis on writing down items instead of carrying them around in your head.)

And I think that writing a good news article, or feature story, or book also includes a bunch of relatively simple steps that you need to do to make it good. You also need some kind of indescribable magic to make the piece truly excellent. But the rest of the stuff should fit onto checklists. I’m going to try to figure out how best to do this, at least to compensate for my own biases and recurrent failures as a writer.

The way that Gawande sums up the benefits of checklists, the best word to capture it is “resilience.” That’s because it prevents little things from bringing down the whole endeavor—like forgetting to give a patient antibiotics before surgery—and when things do go terribly wrong, the preparation that checklists ensure can help you bounce back and save the situation.

How checklists might work for writing, I’m not sure exactly. I’ve got some ideas, but need to hash them out. Wish me luck. However it goes, I’ll write about it.


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »