An American Editor

September 17, 2018

Book Indexes — Part 4: The Metatopic

Ælfwine Mischler

A few years ago, I was asked to index a book about a medieval ruler and the mosque and city he built. The book was primarily an architectural history, but it included substantial information about the city and about the ruler’s childhood in central Asia and its influence on the mosque’s architecture.

But I was told that the names of both the ruler and the mosque, and the name of the city, were not to appear in the index.

I interpreted this to mean that those names were not to be main entries. There were entries on the other cities in the country discussed, so I put the forbidden city as a subentry under “cities,” and I made entries for “education of X” and “rise to power of X” even though I knew that they ought to be subentries under the name of the not-to-be-named ruler.

Being very much a newbie at the time, I asked for a volunteer to peer review my index. My reviewer rightly asked why I had not put main entries for the ruler and the city. When I told her that that was what the editor and author had requested, she suggested that I make a second version of the index with those items properly indexed and give the editor the choice. I did that, but the editor replied that they had decided on the first option. I later saw that in the published version they had also removed the education and rise-to-power entries, as well as the cities main entry so that the “forbidden city” was nowhere to be found in the index, although the other two cities retained their main entries.

Why? I have never understood why the client did not want those items in the index when they were so obviously part of what the book was about.

Long-time indexers say that they were taught decades ago not to index the main topic of the book — what indexers now call the metatopic. Now, though, whenever we peer-review an index, the metatopic is the first thing we look for.

It has been found that when readers use an index, they usually look first for the metatopic that is apparent from the book title or subtitle. If the book is about aardvarks and readers do not find “aardvarks” in the index, they do not conclude that the index is bad; they conclude the book is bad, with nothing about aardvarks.

Obviously, you cannot put everything as subentries under the metatopic, or you would be indexing the whole book. A joke among indexers is of a graduate student who was asked to index his professor’s book. When it came to the metatopic, he started to add page numbers — 1, 2–3, 4, 5–7 — and then threw up his arms with “It’s on every page!”

But under the metatopic(s) — there can be more than one — an indexer can put subentries that cannot stand alone as main entries, such as a definition or other items that readers are unlikely to look for in the index, and then add See also cross-references to guide the reader to the entries for the main discussion. Every main entry in the book should relate to the metatopic(s) in some way.

Here are some of the subentries I put under the metatopic “Egyptology” and the See also cross-references in the index of a three-volume history of Egyptology. (This was a run-in index, which is reflected in the wording, but I am displaying it here as an indented index.)

Handling the metatopic(s) is not always easy, and indexers have different ways to approach the task. The metatopic(s) may be easy to identify from the title or subtitle, or by reading the introduction and conclusion — which indexers read before beginning the index. On the other hand, in a complex scholarly book, the metatopic may not be readily apparent. An indexer may formulate the metatopic as a sentence or short paragraph before deciding on a concise phrasing suitable for an index entry.

As a reader, do you look for the metatopic when you open an index for the first time? Are you disappointed if you do not find it? Have you noticed a difference in indexing styles between older and newer books?

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 on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

August 24, 2018

Helping Clients with Version Control

Ælfwine Mischler

I am interrupting my series on indexing (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) because a distressed client last week left me thinking about how to help authors with version control.

It is hot in Cairo. Daytime temperatures have been 100° F (38° C) for weeks and many of us, myself included, do not have A/C. It makes some of us fuzzy-brained and sometimes our computers overheat. That is what happened to a client (I will call her AB) when she called me repeatedly to help her with a file.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand

AB, an active woman in her mid-seventies with a PhD, was having problems for several reasons. First, she could not maintain version control. Second, she told me that as she is getting older, she is still good in her work field but gets more confused by technology. Third, her aging computer was acting up, probably as a result of overheating. (The next day, she wrote to say that it performed better after she turned it off for several hours.)

As a result of this confluence of problems, I spent two unpaid hours “hand holding” over the phone when I really wanted to work on another client’s book. AB had “lost” the file I edited and returned four months ago. I told her to find my email, redownload the file, and then save it as ED 2. She had problems doing that. I sent her a copy of the file with SECOND EDIT as a prefix to the name, but she had problems downloading it, finding the Downloads folder, and then finding the folder she wanted to put it in — because she had several folders with similar names.

I was starting to get impatient and I wanted to tell her that I was going to charge her for my time on the phone, but we had never agreed to such a thing. Did I have the right, then, to ask for it? Would I have actually been able to collect it? I could hear in her voice that she was getting more and more frustrated. She really needed someone to walk her through what should have been simple procedures. I found it difficult to believe that she really did not know how to do basic things like downloading a file and putting it into another folder. From what she was saying on the phone, it seemed that she was opening the file and copying the text of it rather than copying the file itself from its folder. Did she really not know how to do these things, or was the combination of age, heat, and computer problems overwhelming her?

I have had clients who did not understand some things, such as using Track Changes, but I can send them instructions or send them two versions of an edited file, one with tracking visible and the other with all changes accepted. This was the first time I had to attempt to walk someone through basics. Should I have done anything differently? What would you have done? I welcome your answers in the comment box.

A File by Any Other Name

AB’s biggest problem was version control. This was not the first time she had called me while looking through multiple folders or files with similar names. She had been working on translating a book for many years, and in the end, she sent me the manuscript for copyediting in two parts. Now she had multiple versions of each part and several different folders, and she could not figure out where she had put the one I had edited or which file it was.

When I edit for clients, this is my work pattern:

  • I open the original and use Save As to make a copy with “ED 1” prefixed to the filename.
  • I don’t make any changes in the original (though I might look at it) while I edit version ED 1.
  • When I return ED 1 to the client for review, I tell the client to use Save As to put “ED 2” as the prefix to the name, to work only in the ED 2 file, and to return it to me for checking.
  • I open ED 2 and use Save As to make a copy with “ED 3” added to the name instead of “ED 2.”

Another recent client (“CD”) keeps adding new material to his book — but he follows my early instructions to save the file with a higher version number. He knows that files to me should have an even-numbered version number, and I return an odd-numbered version to him. CD recently sent me ED 10, but before I could get to it, he wanted to add still more lines. I instructed him to call the newest one ED 10.2 so that we could maintain the pattern of even numbers from him and odd from me. We have not had a problem with version control with this work pattern.

AB, on the other hand, has multiple versions that she cannot distinguish from one another. When you have several files with names such as these, how do you know which is the latest?




nancy-aardvarksbook_most recent

Is Your Computer Drafty?

If you tend to retain older drafts of your work, you need to systemize your naming of different versions. Keep the basic filename the same — not with different names as AB did — and add a number and date to each version. (I once joked with a managing editor that she had kept the same spelling mistake in the filename of volume three of a book I was about to index, having indexed volumes one and two with the same misspelled file. She replied that the spelling mistake was the designer’s, but she retained the same filename rather than mess up the designer’s system.) You can, of course, put the version number at the end of the filename, but I find it easier if the number is at the beginning.

Once you have more than two or three drafts, ask yourself if you really need to keep the earlier versions. If you cannot bear to delete them just yet, put them into a folder marked “early drafts” or “older stuff” so you do not confuse them with more-recent versions. You can also use an option described below to hide files so you do not accidentally work in the wrong ones.

Get a Better View

I did not think to tell AB this on the day I was helping her stave off a total meltdown — with her computer problems and distress, she probably could not have absorbed it anyway — but did you know that you can change the view of the files so you can see information about them, including when they were created and/or last modified?

If you open a folder and click on the View tab, you will find options for showing the contents of the folder. Many of the people I have worked with like to use medium or large icons, which display across the screen in rows. The icon view is easier if you like to drag files into subfolders because your “target” is bigger. In this example, I have also turned on the Navigation pane on the left side, which allows you to scroll to quickly find other folders.

My own preference is usually for List — I have shown it here without the Navigation pane.

If version control is a problem for you, try the Details view, and play with the Sort by options until you find the one that is best for you.

It seems that Date Modified, Type, and Size are the default details, because these are the ones that have always appeared when I chose Details view without making any changes. I will talk about some of the options below. You can resize the columns by positioning the cursor on the barely visible line between the column names and dragging. You can also choose Size All Columns to Fit to show the most information.

If you go to the top of the folder under Current view, you will find many more options.

If you click on the triangle under Sort by, you can choose to sort your files by something other than name. Date created or Date last modified would be good choices for version control.

The Add columns menu lets you choose which details to show. Use this along with the Sort by options.

Another useful option is Show/Hide. You can select one or more items, then click on Hide selected items. The files will still be in the folder but will be invisible. This is useful for version control so you do not accidentally open and modify the wrong files. If you want to see hidden items, you can check the box next to Hidden items. Their icons will appear faded in the folder. If you no longer want to hide them, select them and click on Hide selected items, which is a toggle switch, to “unhide” them.

A Word to the Whys

If you have problems with your filenames as AB does, I hope you will now understand why it is important to maintain version control. Keep the basic filename the same and add date or version number to the filename of each new version. Delete older versions that you no longer need. If you really cannot bear to part with them, or if they contain ideas for later works, put them into another folder with a clear name or hide them from view. Play with the folder view options I have described here (and the ones I have not, such as panes) to find the options that work best for your working style.

And stay cool.

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 on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

November 16, 2016

The Order of Things (An Occasional Series): I

This essay inaugurates a new series, The Order of Things. The idea of the series is to discuss the steps necessary for a long-term successful editing career. Needless to say, much of this series will be based on my experience and the experiences of close colleagues. I like to think I have had a very successful long-term editing career, but then success is relative. What is success to me may not be success to you.

Consequently, we begin with what I consider to be the first step in launching a successful career, a step so fundamental that it is rarely discussed, even more rarely thought about, and yet is the driver of for many of the decisions we make. The first step is defining success.

Success has always been a part of the editorial vocabulary, but usually a hidden part. Editors rarely think about it but are quick to claim their success to clients and colleagues, who also do not ask the bottom-line question: What do you mean by success?

Success can have any number of meanings. For some editors, success is editing a New York Times bestseller, even if they made no money on the project. For other editors, success is defined by money, that is, by an income that exceeds $x. Some editors define it by a mixture of steady work and a reasonable income. It really doesn’t matter how it is defined; what matters is that success is defined because it is that definition against which you evaluate your career.

Working for a company usually results in success being defined as climbing the corporate ladder, gaining increasing power and income as one rises. We tend to measure our corporate success against that of our colleagues. We can see who rises, who falls, and we can know what perks accompany the rise or fall.

But as an individual proprietor of our own company of one, we do not really have that ability to measure our success (or failure) against that of our colleagues. Over 32 years I have found very few colleagues willing to really discuss the ins and outs of their business, especially not their incomes. More importantly, it is hard to verify any statements colleagues make about their income or clients or workload or, really, just about anything involving their editing business.

Thus success for editors is measured against self-definitions.

I can tell you that for 29 of my 32 years as an editor, I have earned a six-figure income and that it has generally been at the high end of the low end (a little confusing isn’t it). And I can point to my being the primary (and often sole) source of income for my family, my having bought a house and paying $2,000 a month on a mortgage, and having bought health insurance, and having paid for college, and so on as proof of my statement — but that really doesn’t prove how successful I am. Because I have not yet defined what constitutes success for me, and, perhaps more importantly, it may not be what you consider success. So, we each need to define success for our self and measure our self against that definition.

Why is definition important? Because if we do not have a goal or something to measure against, it is impossible to know if we should continue following our current course.

Let’s accept that success means financial success and that financial success means earning a minimum of $100,000 a year, every year, beginning in 2017. Somewhat like a New Year’s resolution, but one we will strive to attain and keep.

As we begin our journey toward that goal, we can constantly evaluate how we are doing. With that goal, we can determine whether we have enough work, or if we have enough work to keep us busy for the year, is it the right kind of work from the right kind of client. Having that goal also allows us to evaluate what we need to do to attain the goal. Do we need to advertise? What kind of advertising? Where? How often? Focused on what type of client?

“Ahhh!” I hear you say. “The beginnings of a business plan” (for an excellent introduction to business plans, see Louise Harnby’s “Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers” or, better yet, her “Omnibus: Editorial Business Planning & Marketing Plus“). Fundamental to every business plan is knowing your goal, knowing what constitutes success.

Yet defining success encompasses much more. It gives you the opportunity to evaluate many of the business concepts that you are unconsciously employing in your daily business. After all, one facet of attaining the success we defined is wrapped in the cloak of the price we charge for our service. It is not possible, for example, to earn $100,000 if you charge $10 an hour. If you work 80 hours a week and charge $10 for every one of those 80 hours and do so for 52 weeks, your income will be only $41,600 or less than 42% of what constitutes success.

The result of defining success is that you are forced to face and address those things that most editors usually ignore. For example, when setting their rate, most editors ask colleagues questions such as, “What is the going rate?” or “What do you charge for copyediting?” or other uninformative, unhelpful albeit similar questions, when the correct question is, “What is my required effective hourly rate?” and the correct “colleague” to ask is yourself. (For guidance on the effective hourly rate, see the five-part series “Business of Editing: What to Charge.“)

When you ask a colleague about what to charge, you are doing so in a vacuum. Without knowing their goals, you cannot know whether they are charging correctly or how it compares to what you should be charging. Unless a colleague’s goal is the same as your goal and unless the colleague and you are taking the same path, including focusing on identical markets, to that goal, the answer you receive is interesting, making for great “water-cooler” gossip, but not what should guide you.

So, the first step necessary for a long-term successful editing career is to define success. In the absence of setting your goal, you have no yardstick against which to measure your progress and when your path forks, you have no clues as to which fork to take. If you have yet to define success, now is the time to take that first step.

(There are lots of little things that matter in establishing a successful editorial business. My book, “The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper,” is an excellent guide to many of the things that create a successful editorial business. The book is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and from the publisher, Waking Lion Press.)

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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