Gawande identifies checklists as essential for managing vast amounts of knowledge, stating that “they are quick and simple tools aimed to buttress the skills of expert professionals” (128). In his opinion, it’s not necessarily a lack of knowledge that is the problem. Instead, it’s the inability to use that knowledge appropriately, especially in complex, high-stress situations such as building skyscrapers, flying an airplane or performing surgery.
The conclusion of the book is that of course the checklists work. Once the checklists are adapted in operating rooms, complications and fatalities decrease. The checklists themselves are relatively simple, asking the staff to confirm the patient has received antibiotics and make sure the appropriate location on the patient’s body is marked for surgery, for instance. Basic stuff that should be happening in every operating room no matter the location of the hospital or the procedure being performed.
As I mention above, Gawande is interested in experts’ use of checklists. What is more pertinent for the discussion on this blog, however, is the value of standardization. We talk about habits and routines when it comes to developing a writing practice, but we rarely talk about habits and routines in relation to the substance of our writing.
Can such a process be applicable to writing? Perhaps there isn’t one good way to write a manuscript. But, are there certain characteristics that all good manuscripts share? A checklist might be a step towards identifying what those characteristics are. It seems to be the case that bad manuscripts are bad in similar ways. One journal editor suggests that the articles he rejects all exhibit a similar set of problems. The question, then, is this: with the high rates of rejection, it’s obvious that there is much room for improvement in the writing of journal articles. But can the writing of these manuscripts be standardized in some way that will lead to improvement? If so, what would this standardization look like? Further, can you have any level of standardization and still preserve the voice of the author, and what is unique about each manuscript?
I don’t think there is an easy answer to this question. For one thing, there is very little consensus when it comes to identifying “good” writing. This is probably best illustrated by the divergence you’ll find in reviewers’ comments on a single manuscript. Additionally, each discipline has it’s own way of doing things. Of course, there is also the belief that our work is too iterative, subjective, complex or what have you, “It somehow feels beneath us to use a checklist, an embarrassment that runs counter to deeply held beliefs about how the truly great among use — those we aspire to be — handle situations of high stakes and complexity.” (173). We just might think we’re too good for a checklist.
Perhaps the reason why there is so little teaching of writing at the graduate level if because we don’t standardize writing in any way. After all, what is teaching if not standardization, especially at the introductory level? If a set of best practices around writing can’t be identified or agreed upon, then what is there to teach? Yet, leaving each writer to figure it out on their own has not proved successful.
What do you think? Would standardization compromise or improve the writing process? Do you think that academic writers are good at not only identifying problematic writing, but also discussing why it’s problematic and how to improve it?