An American Editor

August 12, 2019

Get Your Finger Off that Search Button: How Not to Index

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 6:06 pm

By Ælfwine Mischler

A client whose book I indexed some months ago — some call him … Tim — wrote to say that his book had finally been published, and he wanted to show me some additions he had made to the index. His email revealed two common misconceptions about indexing.

  • The first was that the index should list every page on which a name of a person or place is mentioned.

Tim had added strings of page numbers after many of the names — up to 15! He had evidently used the Search feature in the PDF and added a page number for every instance of the names. (I had created an embedded index in a Word file and did not have the PDFs to check, but it was obvious what he had done.)

Those strings! He ruined my index, I moaned in an indexing forum. Colleagues commiserated, some adding their own stories of clients going crazy with the Search function. I replied to Tim that if he ever recommended me to another author, he should explain that his index included additions by him that did not follow established indexing practice. I don’t want anyone to think that I would write an index entry like this one:

I do not note every page on which a name occurs when I index, nor do I index every name in the book. If a name is mentioned in passing (that is, there is not substantial information about the person), I do not include that page. Sometimes deciding whether a particular mention of a name should be indexed is a bit subjective. If there is only a brief sentence about the person and it’s not a name that I know will recur in the book, I use the Search function to see if the person comes up again in the book with enough about them to justify indexing them. If so, I am more likely to include such borderline cases in the index. If they don’t appear again, I am more likely to exclude them, especially if space for the index is limited.

If my search reveals that the person does come up a lot in the book, I know that I have to make subentries to avoid a string of page numbers such as Tim produced.

In “How to Index Your Book (And Why I’ll Never Do It Again),” Kathleen Fitzpatrick described her indexing method, which was similar to the one Tim had used for his additions: Find a name, then use the Search to find every instance of the same and list every page number. Go back to the first page, find the next name and do the same. Repeat over and over.

No, this is not the way professional indexers work. We actually read the book cover-to-cover and index as we go, choosing the terms and creating subentries as needed. (Note also that the prices Fitzpatrick gives, writing in 2010, are much too low for professionally made indexes today.)

There are exceptions about indexing passing mentions. In local histories, the norm is to index every mention of every person, street, building, etc., because these bits might provide the only clues for later researchers. A handbook of literature might index every single author, even those simply named in a list with others. This was the editor’s request for the handbook I indexed, but book titles were to be indexed only if they had won an award or there were at least two or three sentences about them. Exceptions for including passing mentions are dictated by the nature of the book and how it will be used.

  • My client Tim’s second misconception was that names of sources should be indexed.

Tim’s book, in the field of Islamic studies, contained a number of hadiths (narrative records of the sayings or actions of Muhammad and his companions that form the second source of Islamic law after the Qur’an) that had been collected and recorded by al-Bukhari and Muslim. Tim wanted to add these names to the index, but the project editor would not let him add new entries, only page numbers to existing entries.

I explained to Tim that I hadn’t included al-Bukhari and Muslim because they are the collectors of hadith and are therefore a source in his book. Those who have read his book and want to look for one of the quoted hadith are unlikely to look for the source; rather, they’ll remember the person who is quoted or the event that is talked about in the hadith, and they’ll look for (and find) that in the index.

On the other hand, of course, if the author talks about someone and one or more of their ideas or theories, I will index that person’s name, since they are not just a source in the book.

The practice of indexing sources does vary from one field to another. In psychology and some other sciences, the norm is to index every single source name in parentheses in a separate name index, without making subentries (and to charge a higher fee for such as index).

Heading off the headache

If you are an indexer, tell your author clients at the beginning of project negotiations how you handle passing mentions and sources. Ask if they have any questions or special requests for the index, such as including their dissertation adviser’s name. Communicating from the start can prevent problems later, although it is no guarantee that a client won’t insist that you go back and add all the names that they had previously agreed to omit.

If you are hiring an indexer, make sure from the start that the indexer understands the best practices in your field, and that you and the indexer agree on what names should be indexed.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books about Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

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